The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 3: raising young

This year, most of the birds that visit my yard chose to build their nests in places where I didn’t see them. Only the brown-headed nuthatches, house wrens and Eastern bluebirds chose to use nest boxes. The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) began to use a nest box but their nest was invaded by ants before I had noticed so they abandoned that site. Still, I was able to watch parents with babies, both at home and out on the nature trails.

There are two major kinds of baby birds. The altricial birds hatch as helpless young who must develop their sight and feathers, requiring parental care until they can fly from the nest. They include the songbirds that you may see often, such as chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and bluebirds, whose babies are seen below shortly after hatching and after several days of development.

 

In contrast, the precocial bird babies can quickly move about on their own after hatching and are able to begin foraging for food themselves as they follow their parents around. In some cases, the parents may also feed them. Examples of precocial birds include killdeer, ducks and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) as seen below.

The nest I watched most closely this season was built by brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) in a nest box. Carolina chickadees were also interested in that spot, but the nuthatches won out. Mama Nuthatch laid six eggs, four of which hatched. She and Papa were very hard workers, flying to and from the box countless times per hour. Like other seed-eating birds, they fed their nestlings insects because the babies need lots of protein for their development.

 

They were devoted parents, flying to and fro with food, carrying away fecal sacs and chasing off other birds who used the nest box as a perch. All their care was no match, however, for a pair of birds who are known to be quite aggressive during nesting season.

 

I first learned of house wrens’ (Troglodytes aedon) intolerance of other nesting birds in their vicinity when they invaded the nest of a banded female Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), whom I had named Chantal. Her babies were hatching and the wrens went into the nest during her absence and killed them. That experience made me hope they would not return to my yard the next spring, but they seem to like the area. This year they visited all the nest boxes in my yard and the male began nests in several of them to keep away other birds. It is thought they may drive away other nesters in order to reduce competition for food when it comes time to raise their own young.

 

The wrens finally settled on a nest box and I thought they would leave the nuthatches alone. Their young ones got to the brink of fledging and the parents were encouraging them to fly out. Sometimes, they would fly up to the box as a youngster peered out into the big wide world and just hover with the food in their mouth.

 

 

They would perch atop the box and call. Eventually two took the leap (which I didn’t see); I thought the others would follow the next day. The parents were busy in the morning and suddenly all activity ceased. I guessed that the other two had taken flight, so in the afternoon I took a peak in the box. To my utter dismay, I found the remaining two nestlings deceased; the wrens had pecked them to death. ☹ I buried them in my flower garden with a small Buddha statue marking the site.

 

 

The nuthatches continued taking care of their fledged babies. They would follow the parents to the feeder poles, crouch down and flutter their wings rapidly as they begged for a morsel.

 

Eventually, the parents found a nearby branch in a large willow oak where they would crack nuts and feed their offspring. As you can see, the spot got a lot of use and could be easily identified by the shredded bark. The whole family still goes up there to eat their nuts from the feeders!

Many adult birds appreciate bird feeders as “fast-food” stops for themselves while they spend most of their time searching for meals for their nestlings. Even the species who mainly eat seeds feed their babies insects because the young ones need lots of protein as they develop toward maturity. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard and other areas seem to favor caterpillars as a food of choice for their developing youngsters.

 

 

 

The pileated woodpecker parents (Dryocopus pileatus) take turns sitting on eggs and bringing food for their young ones.

The larger raptors bring in heftier meals for their offspring. This red-shouldered hawk grew up alone; those of us watching the nest didn’t know whether only one egg hatched or something happened to a sibling. The parents would bring small mammals for the baby to eat.

 

A pair of great horned owl babies (Buteo lineatus), located by Mary, a locally well-known bird photographer, appeared to be growing well the couple times I went to see them. I never saw the parents bring them food but assume they were well fed as they were venturing out of the nest the last time I saw them (a process called “branching”).

 

It seems that a young bird’s open mouth is a trigger for parents that they can barely resist. Until they mature, the fledglings have a pale white or yellow area, or in the case of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) reddish, where their beaks join. This becomes very visible when they open their mouths wide to beg for food and parent birds have a hard time resisting the urge to stuff food down their throats.

The Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) at a local park were following their parents around asking for food.

They exhibited both the crouched wing fluttering and wide-open mouths as cues that they wanted to be fed.

  

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) juveniles did not seem to beg as much as the other birds in my yard. They just perched close to feeders or their parents and eventually mom or dad gave them a bit of suet.

 

The European starling young (Sturnus vulgaris) are especially demanding to judge by their behavior at my feeders. These are larger birds and the offspring are as large as their parents,

They are capable of feeding themselves but spend a good deal of time with wide open beaks demanding to be fed.

 

 

 

The starling parents usually give in, but you can almost think they look exasperated.

At least the immature starlings can demonstrate well how a bird looks with a full crop (i.e., the enlarged part of the esophagus that forms a muscular pouch in which food can be stored).

In between all the feeding, the parents have one other important nest duty – keeping the nest as clean as possible. They do this by removing fecal sacs, as this prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) was doing last year.

 

Some adult birds will actually eat the fecal sac. This is because the nestlings do not completely digest their food and the sacs therefore still contain valuable nutrients that the parents can use. I can imagine the parents are glad to be done with this duty once their young have fledged, however.

When you’re out walking or watching bird feeders, it can be entertaining to observe the birds as they nest and raise their demanding children. And it’s good to know that you may even see adult birds begin to drive away their babies, either because they’re tired of feeding them or because they are busy with a second or even third brood for the season.

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.

Growing up to be a redhead

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9062© Maria de Bruyn (2)In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) almost everywhere I go — except my own neighborhood! Jordan Lake’s woods in two different areas and various sections of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve have all provided me with multiple spottings of, and concerts by, these lovely birds.

I’m not very good at recognizing birds by their calls. Having listened to loud rock music as a teenager left me with some hearing problems. But the red-heads have a loud, unique, warbling territorial call that they emit frequently, regardless of whether another of their species is close by or not. I’ve become quite good at recognizing that call!

The juveniles begin life looking quite different from their parents. They have mostly gray-brown heads and backs and the part of their feathers that will later be entirely white are marked by black splotches and dots.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0654© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0700© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0742© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Like their parents, they show a variety of prey-hunting and food-gathering behaviors. You will hear them pecking at trees in their quest for insects but they also look for insects on the ground and can catch them during flight in mid-air.

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0612© Maria de BruynThey also eat fruit, seeds and nuts like acorns and beechnuts, with plant materials making up about two-thirds of their diet. They will store food in caches so that they can find it again later during times of more nutritional scarcity. And in places far apart, they appear to be good at finding the same orangey cubes that are not nuts but some other, obviously delicious, substance.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8082© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8096© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8788© Maria de Bruyn resred-headed woodpecker IMG_1880© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9470© Maria de BruynTheir food storage habits help birders find them more easily. Both at Jordan Lake and Mason Farm, I’ve discovered a couple trees where certain birds have their food stash and if I wait long enough, a red-head is more than likely going to appear.

 

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and changes to its usual food supply, this species has declined considerably in numbers. That is why it is so nice to see the juveniles among these various groups.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0574© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0576© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8625© Maria de Bruyn

 

As they age, the brown feathers begin giving way to red ones, first around the nape and back of the neck. The black markings on the tail feathers begin to fade as well as they grow older.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9202© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8734© Maria de Bruyn res

When they reach maturity, the birds have brilliant red heads, glossy black and pure white flight and tail feathers.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8345© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_9104© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_1587© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8332© Maria de Bruyn res

As these birds need dead trees for their nesting and storage cavities, it’s great that our area has some preserved forests where they currently appear to be thriving. And I can continue going out in the hopes of one descending from treetops to a lower and nearer perch so that I can finally get the stunning shots I’ve been wishing for!
Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0605© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0707© Maria de Bruyn