Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Chronicle of the Grassland Finches




The Grassland Yellow Finch
Sicalis liteola called Grass Canaries locally, are small seedeaters.  These birds are poached locally for the pet trade and can be seen in pet shops or in cages around the island. I never really understood the battle for survival these birds go through until I found a nest with three eggs on July 30th and started documenting the life cycle of these birds.  Below are the diary entries.

July 30

Eggs @ Nest A
The Grassland Yellow Finch builds its nest on the ground, camouflaged among grass.  On July 30th, while in the North of the island, I came across two nests, one nest, which we will call nest A, contained three whitish eggs with irregular brownish speckles.  The nest was cup shaped, made of grass with the top being about 3” in diameter.  I could not say how long the eggs were there but no bird was seen sitting on or returning to it during the half hour I was there. 
Chicks @ Nest B

Now a second nest, nest B, was a different story.  I found it just a few feet from the first nest.  An adult bird was sitting on the nest but flew off allowing me to see three chicks in the nest.  I could not tell the age of the chicks but they were covered with down feathers/baby feathers and their eyes were closed.   I took a few photographs before backing off to a comfortable distance so “mummy bird” could return to the nest without feeling threatened. I searched but was unable to locate other nests.

The only other birds I observed in the area were three Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) who I thought were searching the grass for insects or small rodents.  This was not the case, as I found out later.


July 31

Posting this find on our local Bird Alert messaging board drew the attention of Dr. John Webster and the next day he paid a visit to the St. Lucy location.  Following my directions he was able to locate Nest A.  He reported that the nest no longer contained three eggs but now had two chicks and one unhatched egg making the chicks less than one day old.  He searched for Nest B but was unable to locate it.   He was surprised to see the Cattle Egrets still busy in the area so he paid closer attention to them only to see that these birds were in fact searching out and feeding on the hatchlings of the Grassland Yellow Finches.

August 1


At 3pm I set about checking the nest of the Grassland Yellow Finch at St. Lucy.  Nest A now contained three chicks now a day old.  These chicks were very quiet, no doubt a protective measure for a ground breeder.  The three looked healthy and alert, raising their heads to accept food from a parent. The chicks were covered with down feathers and their eyes were closed.
Nest B was empty. Could there have fallen prey to the Cattle Egrets? As defenseless chicks on the ground, other possible predators are rats and mongooses. Even poachers are a threat to these beautiful birds but the evidence points in the direction of a group of white Egrets, which were still in the area.

August 03


2 Remaining Chicks
Around midday, with the sun high in the sky, I made the trip to check on the nest of the Grassland Yellow Finch in the northern parish of St. Lucy.  As I approached the nest I noticed a parent was sitting on the nest.  She flew off and I was now able to see two chicks.  This meant that one was missing.  I searched in and around the nest for the body, but did not see any. I also noted that egg shells were nowhere to be seen in or around the nest.  Was the mother responsible for the removal of the shells, trying not to attract attention to the nest?  I moved away from the nest and the mother reclaimed her position to protect the hatchlings from the scorching sun.

August 07


Having not visited the hatchlings for a couple of days I was eager to see how they were doing.  As I approached the nest I realized to my dismay, that it was empty.  I searched around the nest but found nothing.  I sat on a rock looking around in disbelief.  A Cattle egret a few feet away caught my interest, what was even more interesting though was the way this bird was searching the grass fields. Like a detective searching for clues on a crime scene the bird walked a few paces to the east, turned and made the same amount of paces in a western direction.  It searched every bit of grass, and stopped ever so often to closely inspect something that grabbed its attention before continuing on its mission.  With this methodical approach by these birds the Grassland Finches maybe loosing many of its chicks. Is this affecting the local population of this bird species? It is hard to say.


The Grassland Yellow Finch is a bird protected under the laws of Barbados.  Still these birds are openly poached in the grass fields around the island. Birds can still be seen in pet shops being offered for sale. That is just one of the battles for survival these birds face, but observing these chicks over a couple of days, it showed me that the fight starts from the unhatched egg.  


What a truly beautiful bird!!!