The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 2: nest-building

After courtship has taken place, the various bird species get down to the work of constructing nests for their upcoming broods. Even now in July, gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) have been gathering up nesting materials, as have house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) who have been followed around lately by the members of their first brood.

gray catbird P6147926© Maria de Bruyn res

house finch P7081079© Maria de Bruyn resThe sites they choose can vary considerably. Canada geese (Branta canadensis) tend to locate their nests at the edge of ponds if possible. In one case, a pair built their nest atop a beaver lodge.

Canada goose P4269282© Maria de Bruyn res

Canada goose P4070275 © Maria de Bruyn res

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) like to place their nests atop tree snags and will also use special platforms constructed by people for them. A radio tower or stadium lights, such as those at the right, will also do nicely, however.

osprey P5044393 © Maria de Bruyn res              osprey P6126775© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) often choose shrubs and bushes; this one built her nest in a Japanese honeysuckle vine that I allowed to grow along the top of a fence surrounding my berry garden.

Northern cardinal 2G0A0652 © Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal 2G0A0001© Maria de Bruyn res

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) seem to take the least effort in securing a spot for their nest. It is not uncommon at all to find them scratching out a very shallow depression in a parking lot, pathway or bare bit of ground. This killdeer put her nest on a patch of ground at the edge of a parking lot and, admittedly, it was not very obvious (Look carefully at the center of the photo).

killdeer eggs IMG_2885© Maria de Bruyn res

Nevertheless, people were walking across this patch of ground with their kayaks and canoes that they had just unloaded and the eggs were in danger, even if the parents did their broken wing display to try and lead people away from the area.

killdeer 2G0A8192© Maria de Bruyn res

I found a couple traffic cones and marked off the area, warning someone who had just parked nearby. Then I contacted the park rangers to tell them about it.

killdeer cones IMG_2887© Maria de Bruyn res

Fortunately, the rangers added a third cone and some tape to effectively cordon off the area.

killdeer IMG_5577 © Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren eggs IMG_1173© Maria de Bruyn resThe prize for weirdest nest sites will, in my humble opinion, always go to the Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus). People in birding groups often post messages about these birds having built a nest under the hood of a car, in an old boot left outside, inside a little-used mailbox or on a door wreath or plant pot. I have a full-sized spare tire atop a tool cabinet and last year, the wrens laid eggs there.

This year, on one of my walks, I discovered wrens who were feeding their babies in a very awkwardly placed nest inside an old cable or wire box on a neighborhood light pole.

Carolina wren P5086279© Maria de Bruyn res     Carolina wren P5181735© Maria de Bruyn res

When I visited some time later, the nest was empty so the babies must have been able to fledge.

Carolina wren P5181745© Maria de Bruyn res

Many birds will use both tree cavities and nest boxes, depending on what is most convenient or available. Sometimes, they make their own new nest holes in snags, like this red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus).

red-headed woodpecker 2G0A0033© Maria de Bruyn res    red-headed woodpecker 2G0A0248© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern flicker P4217370© Maria de Bruyn res

This Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) was very busy working on a new cavity as well. I followed her and her mate for some time but was never able to see them feeding nestlings as our area had several weeks of hard rain and the nearby lake flooded. I didn’t feel like wading through the lake to get to the snag to check up on them, even after the water had receded a bit.

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) chose a snag that was usually in the water at the edge of Jordan Lake. The hole faced out into the lake so the fledglings were going to have to fly out and veer left or right immediately in order to get to a resting place!

brown-headed nuthatch P4175229 © Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) will use nest holes built by themselves or other birds in previous years.

Eastern bluebird P4070231© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird P7070899© Maria de Bruyn resThis year, the Eastern bluebird pair who frequent my yard chose not to use their usually preferred nest box. I believe it’s because they could see me watching them and they don’t like that at all! If they see me with my camera, it doesn’t stop them from flying up to the feeder or sitting on a branch near the porch. If I point the camera toward the nest box, however, they stare at me in dismay, remain on branches near the box, and refuse to go in until I shift the camera away. They did come to my feeders multiple times daily to feed their first brood (one of whom is pictured at right), once they had fledged from a nest in someone else’s yard.

Eastern bluebird P7091193 © Maria de Bruyn resTo my surprise, a couple weeks back, the bluebirds chose to use a decorative nest box that I had bought for decoration. It hangs from a pole and sways in the wind and was not really sturdy. The roof began to let loose in the middle and the décor was curling up from the exposure to rain. But when I finally looked in the box when the parents were gone, I found four nestlings inside. They were pretty well grown already and I thought they might be fledging this past week. I didn’t see it, although I did watch a bit. Yesterday, I found one half of the roof on the ground and the nest was empty. I hope that the babies fledged and not that some larger bird plucked them out after the roof came off.

The materials used for nests can differ quite a lot. House wrens (Troglodytes aedon) make loose frameworks of twigs and the nests look pretty messy inside a box.

house wren 2G0A9598© Maria de Bruyn res         house wren P5181711© Maria de Bruyn res

They do seek out some softer materials with which to line the nest.

house wren 2G0A1982 © Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) make beautiful cups of moss and line them with softer materials – plant fluff or hair from mammals that they find.

Carolina chickadee P3285249 © Maria de Bruyn res     Carolina chickadee IMG_8789© Maria de Bruyn res

Cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) use mud to construct nests, often underneath bridges and rafters in more urban areas.

cliff swallow 2G0A3239© Maria de Bruyn res     cliff swallow 084A3656 © Maria de Bruyn sgd res

It is well-known that hummingbirds use spider web to help hold their nests together. Blue-gray gnatcatchers (Polioptila caerulea) are also known for doing this.

blue-gray gnatcatcher IMG_8085© Maria de Bruyn res

blue-gray gnatcatcher P4027629 © Maria de Bruyn res

I was surprised a couple years ago to find a nest-building Northern parula (Setophaga americana) also collecting spider web – it appears to be a popular construction material for the birds!

Northern parula 2G0A6727© Maria de Bruyn res

I will leave you with a couple photos from one of my favorite types of nests – that of the white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). The first time I saw one being built, I was quite surprised as the birds had chosen a low sapling only about 2 feet from a pathway. They weren’t fond of me watching so I took some photos and left. When I returned some days later, they had completed the nest. (The one below is a different bird.)

white-eyed vireo 2G0A5756© Maria de Bruyn res2

The nests are obviously well-made. This year, I came across an empty nest – also in a low shrub right next to a walking path. It has withstood strong winds, heavy rainstorms and other weather. Now it is a lovely decoration for walkers to see as they pass by.

white-eyed vireo P6125921© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up in the blog series: raising babies!

Some previous blogs about nesting can be seen here and here.

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 1: courtship and mating

Although we in the Northern hemisphere are already a little more than a month into summer, many species among our avian friends have not yet completed their breeding cycle. In my yard, many parents are still feeding begging (sometimes almost adult) children. Others are feeding young ones in the nest and some appear to be busy constructing new nests for a second or third brood. So, after a long hiatus in blogging, I decided to feature some of my bird friends, including the American goldfinch pair below (Spinus tristis) as they have worked on their new family lives in 2020.

American goldfinch P7130178 © Maria de Bruyn resSome of these photos go back to early spring. A series of misfortunes (including a crash of my laptop hard drive, a broken camera, loss of Internet) meant that I had a backlog of photos to process and then suddenly a large gap in photos taken. But I managed to recuperate some of the work and hope you enjoy the coming series of posts about the birds’ breeding and family life!

belted kingfisher

Breeding season is heralded by increasing bird song in the meadows, forests, fields and our yards. Males especially sing to attract mates and establish territories, but females treat us to songs and calls, too. This makes it easier to spot birds as the tree foliage gets thicker, especially if you have good hearing!

pine warbler P4175086© Maria de Bruyn                     white-eyed vireo P4123164 © Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)            White-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus)

Eastern meadowlark P4279816© Maria de Bruyn res            Orchard oriole P4279889© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna)     Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)

Carolina wren P3316544 © Maria de Bruyn res                 blue grosbeak P4291500© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)      Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)

summer tanager P4291520© Maria de Bruyn res

Summer tanager (Piranga rubra)

Indigo bunting P6308502© Maria de Bruyn

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Courtship is usually a sweet behavior to watch in my view. The male Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are especially devoted suitors, seeking out nice morsels to present to their intended mates, while among the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), it’s the females who loudly call to their mates for some tasty bites.

Northern cardinal P4164873© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow P4080661 © Maria de Bruyn res

A fact that perhaps many bird lovers do not know is that few male birds have a penis. Like the female birds, most species’ males have a cloaca, a cavity externally located just under the bird’s tail and internally at the end of the digestive tract. Feces, urine, sperm and ova are all deposited in the cloaca. Birds who reproduce with this organ briefly rub their cloacae together (an activity called the “cloacal kiss”) whereby sperm from the male bird’s testes are transferred into the female’s cavity to unite with her eggs. During breeding season, the cloaca is slightly swollen and protrudes a bit from the bird’s body, facilitating the transfer. In the photo of this Carolina wren, you can see a slightly darker area under the tail indicating where the cloaca is found.

Carolina wren P7059955 © Maria de Bruyn res

red-headed woodpecker P4217162© Maria de Bruyn res

When ready for mating, the red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) seem to focus mainly on chasing away rivals and then snatching a quick mating session. The female woodpecker then takes a break from the chase to rest and have a bite to eat.

Some cliff swallow males (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) seem to take advantage of females who are preoccupied with gathering mud for their nests for a quick tryst.

cliff swallows 2G0A3283© Maria de Bruyn res

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) seem to take their time for mating. This pair was occupied for at least 5-10 minutes in preparing for the upcoming production of eggs. At times, it seemed like the male was giving the female instructions on what to do once “the deed” was done!

brown-headed cowbird P5097676 © Maria de Bruyn res   brown-headed cowbird P5097677 © Maria de Bruyn res

Many birders do not like the cowbirds because they are parasitic nesters, i.e., they lay an egg in another bird’s nest so that the other bird will raise the young. Since the cowbird baby usually hatches before the other eggs, they either monopolize the food that the foster parents bring or they may even destroy the eggs laid by their foster mother.

brown-headed cowbird P5097682 © Maria de Bruyn res      brown-headed cowbird P5097686© Maria de Bruyn res

It’s been posited that the cowbirds evolved to use this strategy because they followed the bison in migration and therefore couldn’t stay in one place to raise their young. Others believe, however, that the birds developed the practice because dispersing their eggs over several nests gave their young a better chance of reaching adulthood.

brown-headed cowbird P5097689© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow P6256620© Maria de Bruyn sgd resThe quickest mating scenario I’ve witnessed came from a pair of sweet little chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina). I’d seen the two fluttering together at the feeders and had noted one sparrow chasing another away – which I now think was the victorious suitor driving away a rival. Then one July afternoon, the two flew to a dying cedar and sat close to one another on a branch. Suddenly, Mr. Victory mounted his mate but for what only seemed a few seconds – really very quick work indeed! She sat there with her rear end elevated for a bit and then the two went back to feeding – and soon after I saw them collecting nesting materials.

chipping sparrow P6256622© Maria de Bruyn res    chipping sparrow P6256623© Maria de Bruyn res

The birds in which the males do have a penis include some duck and swan species, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwi and geese. They differ from other birds in that development of the penis is NOT stopped in the male bird embryos during development (the case in cloacal birds).

The mallard males (Anas platyrhynchos), like some other ducks, unfortunately do not treat their partners well. They may mount the female very roughly. During a mating, she may be dunked underwater repeatedly and at length; occasionally, this results in her drowning. This behavior has been the subject of various studies and some newspaper articles with sensationalistic headlines (e.g., “The horrible thing you never knew about ducks)”.

Mallard duck P1232837 © Maria de Bruyn

Mallard duck P1232839 © Maria de Bruyn     Mallard duck P1232840© Maria de Bruyn

Once the actual mating is over, the birds devote most of their energy toward building a nest. While female ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) must construct her nest and tend her babies alone, many other birds cooperate in the venture, like the Eastern bluebirds. Their efforts are featured in the next blog. (And if you’d like to see a previous post on courtship, it is here.)

ruby-throated hummingbird 2G0A4084© Maria de Bruyn res

Avian generations in the making – part 2A: nesting and man-made construction

Hi folks — today I’d like to share with you some of my observations on the second part of avian reproduction — the process in which birds make a nest and lay eggs. (By the way, if you look up “bird nesting” on the Internet, the search will lead you to a human activity: a shared custody arrangement where children reside in one house and the parents take turns living there with them. In the bird world, some avian parents will actually share a home, such as this very old and enormous sociable weaver nest (Philetairus socius) that I saw in Namibia.)

Females of a few species will deposit their eggs in the nests of another, such as some cuckoos and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Some people dislike cowbirds intensely because of their nest parasitism (the cowbird baby will hatch first and eat all the food or perhaps get rid of the other eggs or babies). I figure that this is how the cowbird evolved – it didn’t make a choice to wipe out other species so I can’t blame or hate the bird for it. But the cowbirds do appear to pick on particular species as involuntary “foster parents” and this may be affecting the success of the other species’ reproduction.

There are two general broad categories of bird nests – those located in or on man-made objects such as nest boxes, atop downspouts, in vehicles, in plant pots and other places and those constructed by birds in trees, shrubs and on the ground (i.e., the natural environment which I will discuss in the next blog so this doesn’t get too long!). When birds make a nest in a “human area”, people will often try to accommodate them, not using the object or vehicle or making the space safer. For example, when American robins (Turdus migratorius) put a nest on one of my downspouts, I covered the rainwater container underneath it so the fledglings wouldn’t drown when they leapt to freedom. (I did it just in time, too!)

Swallows and phoebes will also use human constructions as places to situate their homes. The cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) gather up mud, making countless trips to wad up small balls of the material to carry back to a place like this pier at Cane Creek Reservoir where they line up their nests in a row.

   

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) locate their nests inside, using rafters to place a nest; they may end up sharing space with paper wasps and organ pipe mud dauber wasps (Trypoxylon politum), which doesn’t seem to bother them.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) may use an inside corner of a patio overhang as a site that is conveniently accessible from outside.

Purple martins (Progne subis) living east of the Rocky Mountains almost exclusively nest in homes provided by people. The hanging gourd nests can be seen in fields but nowadays other types of plastic constructions are also used.

    

In order to attract barn owls (Tyto alba) back to areas where many traditional barns have been razed, people are also placing special boxes in fields with plenty of open space in front of them so that the owls will have a hunting territory adjacent to their front door. Made of heavy plastic, these boxes may be monitored by organized groups in an effort to document their use.

   

At the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, an eagle scout project involved bringing in cranes to attach very large nest boxes to the tops of trees for barred owls (Strix varia) – so far, I have only seen Eastern gray squirrels making use of these nests.

And then there are the nest boxes that people put up to attract Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) and screech owls. In my yard, other birds use these boxes, too, including the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) such as my one-legged,  banded friend Chantal, Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who may puzzle about how to get a long twig into the box and house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), who pile up twigs in a rather untidy stack inside the box.

   

   

Chickadees construct lovely mossy nests lined with hair, fur or plant fibers.

      

The nuthatches have nests with bark strips.

    

Sometimes people will intervene when a nest is in danger. A Carolina wren put her nest into a boat at Cane Creek Reservoir that was rented out to people and keeping the nest there was not a good option as she would be missing her nest for hours when the boat was gone. The land manager was so kind as to relocate the nest into a tree right in front of the boat’s resting place; unfortunately, inclement weather caused the nest to dislodge that evening.

   

Another danger may also threaten the birds and their nests – predators. A friend and I found it unusual to see a tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) putting a nest in a bluebird box on the edges of a farm. Several days later, we saw a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) peering out of the box and the swallows were nowhere to be seen.

   

If you can manage to mount your boxes on poles rather than trees, put both squirrel and raccoon baffles on them and also place them away from overhanging branches, they should stay relatively safe from the squirrels, snakes and raccoons. Next up: birds’ nests with no human connections.

 

 

Swallow sibling spats – who gets the food??

Mother Nature came through for me again a week ago, treating me to an interesting session of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) behavior. (I first thought they were barn swallows but then noted they didn’t have deeply forked tail feathers.) I had noticed the swallows flying high above me as I walked to a favorite birding spot where I hoped to see hummingbirds feeding on the profusely blooming trumpet vines. Instead, I got a lesson on how swallow siblings may interact.

Occasionally a couple birds would come very near one another in flight. My attempts to get good shots were however stymied by their very swift swooping.  As I came upon the structure where I would position myself for the next 80 minutes, I noticed five swallows sitting on a wire, all of them preening and grooming. It was only after taking multiple photos and one flying off that I realized the group included both adults and juveniles.

 

At one point, all but one flew away; he (assuming a male for convenience’s sake) was alone for a good bit of time. Occasionally, he would stretch his feathers or teeter on the wire; I wondered if he had hurt his wings and was therefore staying put, unable to fly.

It turned out that he was just waiting for a parent to arrive with food. The bird would stretch his wings and put them out a bit to help with balance but otherwise didn’t move except when a parent came within earshot. Then he began fluttering his wings and calling with an open mouth guaranteed to trigger the instinct to stuff something down it.

   

Sometimes, this meant having to turn his head 180° to get it in the right position for the deposit of an insect. This had the desired results.

The bird was alone on the wire for perhaps 20 minutes or so – and then was joined by a couple others. They looked a bit bigger and more developed but I finally realized that these were the bird’s siblings, who had been doing more to practice their flight capabilities.

  

“Wire” bird maneuvered his way down the wire in stages to end up right next to, and then almost on top of, one sibling. He almost seemed to be pecking the bird. This did not go down well and finally brother/sister left after wire bird moved back and forth.

 

The parents arrived sporadically with food, perhaps hoping that wire bird would finally take off – and then he finally did, showing he was not injured at all. I think he simply wanted to have table service and figured staying on the wire with an open mouth was easier than having to try catching lunch on the wing like his siblings.

   

Two siblings finally decided to perch on the wire, too, all making sure to keep some distance between themselves. Perhaps they were tuckered out after all those flights; one took a few naps between visits from mom and dad.

Wire bird was very good at attracting his parents’ attention so the other two tried to become more vocal and began fluttering their wings more as well. They also moved closer to him, likely hoping to intercept a meal.

  

 

Things became a bit more difficult for the parents, who could scarcely alight on the wire before having the food snatched away!

 

 

 

  

Then, one of the siblings seemed to have had enough of wire bird’s success and approached him – to wire bird’s dismay.

They had a little spat!

 

  

  

Sibling No. 2 also took a turn at wire bird – they seemed to be saying that enough was enough and he had to stop monopolizing mom and dad’s attention, care and feeding.

   

  

When a crow arrived, everybody flew off in a panic but it wasn’t long before wire bird was back in place. Mom and dad began arriving much more regularly and the siblings decided being on the wire would be more productive than trying to find their own food. The parents finally began feeding the siblings more and everyone seemed to be pleased with that arrangement.

Towards the end of my 80-minute observation stint, I reflected on how patience showed me much more of what was happening than I had first assumed. If I had left after 20 minutes, I might have gone away feeling sorry for wire bird, thinking he couldn’t fly well and had to rely on his faithful parents. It was only by staying and watching that I saw the nest mates have their spats and I had a new narrative to explain the behavior I was seeing.

 

It would be so interesting to be a researcher who follows the development of a species, avian or otherwise. When I was younger, I probably didn’t have the amount of patience needed to spend more than an hour in position to see what would happen next. Now it was a sore arm from holding up my heavy camera and zoom lens that ended my session. But I’m grateful that I have the time and calm now to watch and wait and wonder about what will happen next. And other than the camera equipment and gas expenses, it’s an inexpensive way to keep learning and enjoying the fabulous natural areas that still remain.