Nests in the Yard

A quick survey of our immediate neighborhood tallied 51 species breeding here. Did I see 51 nests? Oh my, no. Did I see most of them? Not in my wildest dreams. So how do I know they nested? Four clues:

First, we saw courting behavior: male Northern Cardinals offering bill-to-bill gifts of sunflower seeds to flirting mates; Eastern Bluebird pairs ducking in and out of nest boxes, comparing the merits of one location over another; a male Wood Duck swimming nervously around a female, awaiting her decision; and Red-shouldered Hawks copulating.

PictureSometimes we saw bird pairs, not courting, but their breeding-season togetherness pointing to their family ways: Eastern Towhees, he in black and rust, she in brown and rust; Brown Thrashers, he and she nearly indistinguishable but together; Indigo Buntings, he in brilliant blue, she in plain-Jane brown. The extended family of seven American Crows, the young from last year and the previous year helping Mom and Dad with this year’s brood, pointed to another nesting species.

PictureSecond, we saw birds carrying nest materials—sticks, grasses, last year’s leaves, bits of string, gobs of mud. Baltimore Orioles nearly tipped over backward yanking shreds from the wisteria vine. Carolina Wrens scooped up bills full of shredded leaf mulch, filling their bills so full they surely couldn’t see to fly. Carolina Chickadees tugged tufts of moss from the ground where it grows on the north side of the shed. House Wrens executed contortions to stuff eight-inch twigs into one-and-a-half-inch holes in a gourd.

Third, we observed territorial behavior. Northern Mockingbirds chased and fussed. Great-crested Flycatchers called from a chosen tree cavity. Red-winged Blackbirds dive-bombed the Red-shouldered Hawk as she hunted too close to their territory. The Summer Tanager sang from treetops around his territory’s perimeter, drawing an audio map. 

PictureBirds singing during breeding season are either defending territory or advertising for mates. But sometimes songs are more easily heard than secretive birds are to see, like Northern Parula, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Wood-pewee, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Wood Thrush, the songster with the most beautiful avian aria. Lately, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, awaiting caterpillar hatches before they begin nesting, registered their territorial boundaries with their resonating “cloak-cloak-cloak.

Fourth, we watched breeding pairs feed their young. Tree Swallows fed young in the nest and fed fledglings on the wing (a spectacle to watch); woodpeckers—Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers—brought their youngsters to suet feeders; a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches showed three babies how to snap up sunflower-seed snacks; Chipping Sparrows taught their family birdbath-splashing techniques.

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