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Nest Joy: Bird Nest Discoveries

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Serendipitous bird nest discoveries

This afternoon, I was rough mowing part of our meadow to control the spread of invasive plants such as Canada thistle and Johnson grass. The tractor overheated and I had to let it cool down, so I began walking around and hand clipping some flower spikes.

Summer mowing is not my normal meadow management plan - see more in my post, Grow Your Own Meadow: Easy, Natural, and Beautiful. I try to mow only once a year in the spring, to let natural processes unfold. Also, in keeping with Habitat Network's wildlife-friendly mowing guidelines, I understand that it is best for nesting birds to stop mowing between mid-April and mid-August here in Maryland. However, I also don't want thistle and grasses to go to seed. It's a tough balance to find at times.

With pruners in hand, I walked by this shrub, and thought I'd clip off the dead branch sticking up:

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Shrub with hidden blue grosbeak nest.

As I reached down into it, I saw the nest:

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Blue grosbeak nest.

There is a magical sense of delight when one discovers a bird nest. Even an empty nest is something special. It's a natural work of art, a beautiful, functioning, secret home. This one was so perfect, and so vulnerable, yet masterfully hidden inside the sheltering leaves of the groundsel tree. I looked around to try to find the owners. A beautiful male blue grosbeak sat atop a nearby shrub, chuck-chucking at me. His mate soon flew up as well. I retreated to the house for my binoculars and walked back to observe. Sure enough, the female grosbeak had returned to the nest: confirmation.

That will be the end to mowing for the summer in this area, of course. I'd rather have blue grosbeaks in residence, which are beautiful birds, and leave invasive species control on the back burner for the time being. 

Close mockingbird neighbors

Meanwhile, a mockingbird has built its nest in this fig tree, only about 20 feet from our house:

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Fig tree with mockingbird nest. The bottom of the nest is just visible on the right underside of the canopy.

Its current contents look like this:

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Mockingbird nest with eggs. Aren't they beautiful?

Mr. and Mrs. Mockingbird seem almost to enjoy scolding me whenever I go into the garden, which is at least a couple times a day. They perch on a post and bob their tails. "Tut! Tut! Tut!" I infer a hostile tone, and attempt to soothe them by explaining that this is also my garden, where I need to pick raspberries and water the tomatoes. It's unclear whether they accept this reasoning.

I wonder whether they know that it's a fig tree, and built their nest so that they would have a ready crop of fruit to feed on while raising their brood. Of course, the figs might not be ripe yet when the eggs hatch, so it could be a slight calendrical miscalculation.

Also: why build their nest so very close to our house? Are the mockingbirds simply fearless? Perhaps they sense that a kindred spirit lives here. I do have two cats who opportunistically dine on the occasional bird (I know - another moral dilemma for a wildlife gardener). Did the mockingbirds not see the cats sprawling on the patio? Who can plumb the depths of a mockingbird's mind? Not I.

A Barn swallow's paradise

In another stroke of luck (for me), a family of barn swallows has set up shop under our carport. 'Tis the season. In their birdly wisdom, they built the nest directly above my husband's parking spot, right in front of our door:

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Nesting barn swallow.

Both parents feed and watch over their brood of about five chicks. They swoop low over the lawn, catching insects on the wing in aerobatic maneuvers. Soon they return to perch on the wire to offer up their provender:

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Barn swallow feeding nestlings.

It does not take very long for barn swallow babies to go from fuzzy-topped old men to looking like they are ready to take flight. Less than two weeks have passed since they hatched, and here is how they look today:

📷Barn swallow fledglings, approximately 12 days old.

If you build (a nest box), they will come

Aside from such wonderful serendipitous nesting discoveries, we have also become hosts to bluebird and tree swallow families in the four nest boxes dotted around our property. All four have been occupied at least once this year, and two boxes currently hold a second clutch of young. Bluebirds in particular are likely to attempt a second or even third clutch in a single summer. More nest joy for all.

Bluebird nest boxes are easy to find and to install. I've made one, which is a fun project (see these instructions for how to build a bluebird house out of a single piece of wood), but you can also buy one if you prefer. If you put up a bluebird house, make sure to put a predator guard of some kind on it. It will prevent snakes, raccoons, and other animals from sneaking in and stealing eggs or nestlings.

A bluebird nest (second clutch) on the go in one of my boxes:

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Bluebird eggs.

Here's a newly hatched bluebird family in another box, only two days old:

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Two-day old bluebird hatchlings.

They are born bare, with no feathers and a brightly outlined mouth which they gape open to catch food from their parents. After a couple of weeks, they grow feathers and grow into their beaks:

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Bluebird fledglings.

Bluebirds are wonderful neighbors. They have a soft, burbling song and a gentle spirit. Bluebirds feed mostly off of caterpillars they find on the ground, so they often land within sight to pick up prey. They are not the only birds who will use a box this size with a 1.5" entrance hole. Tree swallows, chickadees, tufted titmice, and other small songbirds could also take up residence. If house sparrows move in, you are legally allowed to evict them and/or destroy their eggs, since they are an introduced pest species.

Tree swallows are more territorial than bluebirds, and may dive bomb you repeatedly if you venture too close to an active nest box. It is surprisingly intimidating to have a tree swallow fly straight at your head. In other words, you'll know if you have tree swallows before you even open the box.

Other nest box adventures

As if my own nest riches weren't enough, I am also fortunate enough to be a volunteer wood duck nest box monitor at Pickering Creek Audubon Center. A group of about half a dozen of us regularly check assigned boxes between March and June. We monitor for wood duck activity, noting egg laying dates, calculating incubation periods, and observing hatch success rates. It's very exciting to come upon a nest full of wood duck eggs:

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Wood duck eggs under incubation. The hen has plucked down feathers from her body to help insulate the eggs when she leaves for short feeding trips.

Wood ducks live near water. When the eggs hatch, the ducklings are born with downy feathers. Instead of staying in the nest, they all jump out within 24 hours of hatching and follow their mom to the nearest swimming hole. Their natural nesting sites are cavities in dead trees. The nesting cavities can be quite high up (as high as 60 feet, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), and up to a mile away from water. That's a long jump and an even longer waddle for those babies. Most wood duck boxes I have seen are mounted on posts 4-8 feet high and within sight of water.

In the course of this year's wood duck nesting season, two of the five boxes I monitor had other species use them.

First, a bluebird pair built a spacious nest:

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Bluebird nest under construction in wood duck box. Look at all that real estate.After about a week, eggs appeared:📷 Bluebird nest in wood duck box.

Considering that there are over 60 dedicated bluebird boxes at Pickering Creek, I'm not sure why the bluebirds decided to go for this mansion, but clearly it held appeal for them.

The other box contained a somewhat messy looking nest fashioned out of rootlets and dead leaves, with an almost burrow-like structure:

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Nest under construction in wood duck box.

This turned out to be the work of a pair of Carolina wrens, who also soon started their family:

📷Carolina wren nest in wood duck box.

Both of these nests are still underway at the time of writing, but I'm hopeful that they will fledge successfully.

How to attract nesting birds to your property

You don't have to do much to attract nesting birds to your property - in fact, they are probably already there somewhere, if you have any shrubs or trees growing. However, to increase the odds, here are a few tips:

Plant a mix of native herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees. This three-story structure will offer the best combination of nesting habitat, food sources, and protective cover that birds need. See my post on designed plant communities for more info, and visit Audubon's Plants for Birds website to get a printable list of species tailored to your location and site conditions.Put up bird feeders with seeds, suet, nectar, and/or nuts to attract visitors. If the habitat conditions are also appealing, they may build a nest nearby. Remember that most birds, even seed eaters, rely upon insects to feed their young. Birdfeeders alone won't supply all of their food needs. Native plants and the insects they support are the key.Include a water source such as a birdbath or small pond, where birds can drink and bathe.Put up nest boxes to attract various species, such as bluebird houses, purple martin condos, wood duck boxes, or wren houses, depending on your setting. If you build it, they will (probably) come! Remember to promptly clean out old nests once the young have fledged, to make room for a second (or third) nesting cycle.

Finally, be observant. Keep an eye on your birds and note if you see a certain pair returning repeatedly to the same tree or shrub. Get out the binoculars and watch for a few minutes. Go outside and listen. Sometimes, the first indication that you have a nest is the sound of the babies cheeping for food. Keep an eye out for fledglings, too. They are often slightly mottled, or have shorter tails, compared to adults, and often tag along with the adults for several weeks after leaving the nest. 

The holy grail

My holy grail of a bird nest sighting would be to see a hummingbird nest. I know there must be at least one around, because I have hummingbirds who return every year. But they must be so well camouflaged, or so high up in large, leafy trees, that I've never caught sight of one. It would be such a treat to have the opportunity to peek into a hummingbird nest and seeing the teeny, tiny eggs, or the super-mini-tiny hummingbird chicks. Maybe one day . . . I'll be keeping my eye out.

What nest joy have you come across lately? Please share in the comments section below.

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