Naturalist Brian Keating gets 'birds-eye view' of flicker nest with spy cam

When a family of flickers settled in a nesting box on his property, naturalist Brian Keating decided to set up a spy cam to capture the action.

Watching eggs hatch and babies feed is 'better than Netflix,' naturalist says

The flicker has two glowing patches on either side of the beak, which naturalist Brian Keating says acts as a target for the mother when feeding baby birds. (Photo by Brian Keating)

When a family of flickers settled in a nesting box on his property, naturalist Brian Keating decided to set up a spy cam to capture the action.

"The camera is so small, it's the size of a matchbox," Keating told The Homestretch. "I was able to double-sided tape it to the roof of the lid inside the box. So I don't think the birds really even noticed. In fact, after I installed that they didn't skip a beat in their activity."

The camera sends a signal to a receiver in the house, and allows Keating to watch the action on a monitor.

"I've got it plugged into an old small TV," he said. "And it's been superb meal-time entertainment."

The flicker, also known as a woodpecker, is common around Alberta.

Keating said the flicker is bigger than a robin, with a kind of gentle expression. It's got a handsome scalloped plumage, a red colouration, and a white flash on the rump.

Last month, he told The Homestretch all about flickers, and their habit of tapping on aluminum chimney stacks. 

But what about their habits inside the nest?

"It was really exciting when they started laying their first eggs," Keating said. "They lay five to eight eggs and they lay one each day or every second day … they don't want to start incubating them until they're all laid so that they get synchronous hatching."

Keating was surprised to see the eggs continue to be laid, day after day.

"Before I knew it, there were eleven eggs in the box before they started incubating."

The spy cam feed inside Brian Keating's home, with a bird's eye view into the flicker nest. (Photo by Brian Keating)

According to Keating, that's not usual. After consultation with Chris Fisher, the author of Birds of Alberta, Keating concluded that it came down to competition for a nesting site, as adult flickers fought over prime real estate — two females were seen quarrelling at the site.

"Nest sites, the perfect hole in the perfect old tree, they're rare and each site is coveted. And it may be this [second] female just didn't have an opportunity to offload her eggs in the appropriate site. So she dumped them."

The camera allows Brian Keating to peer inside the birds' next. (Photo by Brian Keating)

Keating said there are issues in Calgary as perfect nesting sites become harder to find, and there's even competition from squirrels.

"[Squirrels] take over nesting areas and they'll eat eggs and nestlings of birds. And the obnoxious starling will do the same thing. 

"They'll actually take the eggs and fly out of the nesting box with them and deposit them elsewhere so they can take over."

Eventually, the camera revealed some great drama.

"Six did hatch, and I think those six are from the female that was teamed up with the male," Keating said. "The other five eggs vanished. I don't know if they were removed, maybe they just got buried down in the wood chips … at the bottom of the nest boxes."

Baby flickers wait safely in the nest for their mother to return with food. (Photo by Brian Keating)

Keating said they first noticed some eggshell bits discarded to the side in the early afternoon of May 23. 

All six had hatched by that evening.

Keating was able to see the glowing egg teeth of each baby bird, the single hardened bump on the end of the bill that is used to break out of the egg.

"In addition to the glowing egg tooth, there are two equally glowing spots on the joints of either side of the jaw. So when they open up their mouths, it's the perfect triangle of glowing dots for the parent to stick food into."

Keating said a week later, the babies had grown to six times their hatching size.

Keating shared a video from inside the nest, and Fisher suggested that those hungry mouths could not have been satisfied if they had hatched just a week earlier. 

"You know, everything is so perfectly timed," Keating said. "Calgary in the last 10 days has blossomed with insect life … the parents are continually going in and out stuffing food into those gaping mouths."

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch