Inside the Outdoors: Birds make homes in the darnedest places
One of the children’s books I remember best from my daughter and son’s early years is the classic Make Way for Ducklings, a story about a mama mallard who raised her brood in the heart of downtown Boston. It’s amazing how adaptable wild birds are, how willing to accept the presence of man and his contrivances when the urge to reproduce is at its height in spring.
Over some four decades as a homeowner I have seen “up close and personal” some of the daring choices birds will make to get their reproductive job done. As I sat at the kitchen bay window early one morning on the weekend just passed, looking out on a soggy, rain-soaked world, I watched a chipping sparrow hovering almost like a hummingbird between a pair of small arbor vitae bushes that border our property. As best I could tell, its bill was stuffed with a mouthful of insects, breakfast for what must surely be its immature offspring, hidden in a nest in the bush’s interior.
Our neighbors beyond the arbor vitae hedge had tipped us off to the presence of the nest, which we had somehow managed to miss despite all the time spent this spring getting our yard into shape. In fact, my wife had been totally oblivious to it when she was trimming the rusty brown winter-killed foliage from some of these bushes, and her electric hedge trimmers made their noisy, vegetation-chopping passes up and down the sides of this very bush, mere inches of the nest. All this commotion without the bird spooking and flying off. Parental devotion is among life’s strongest urges; sometimes it seems, stronger than self-preservation itself.
Mourning doves can be among the most skittish and “flighty” of birds, which is one of the reasons they are the most popular game in bird in America. When feeding, gathering grit, or sipping water from a puddle of standing water, they are likely to take flight long before a human can get close to them. In our experience they have typically nested in one of our spruce trees, hidden away amid its densely-grown branches. But one spring a female dove threw away the rule book, and chose instead the most conspicuous and unprotected location possible.
Besides our gardens, and free-standing pots of all shapes and sizes, my wife also grows flowers in planters mounted on the fence that separates our yard from another neighbor. One particular planter is nothing more than an open wrought iron platform, just large enough to support several small flower pots.
But this particular mourning dove got there before my wife could place her pots, and began assembling that collection of pine needles, twigs, and what-have-you’s that would become her nest. Dove nests are notoriously skimpy and rough, nothing close to the carefully woven, mud-cemented structures that make some wild birds’ nests last long after they are unoccupied. “Wild dove’s nest” has even become an expression to describe something hastily and poorly constructed.
Unlike the well-hidden dove nests in our spruces, this nest was built right out “in front of God and everyone” on the fence platform, the browns and grays of the nest, and the buff-colored female dove, standing out starkly against the white of the fence. Her every move, every coming and going, were there for all to see. We have had hawks take birds and other small creatures from our backyard, and the occasional poorly-managed house cat can be seen prowling the neighborhood looking for a young bird or baby rabbit, but somehow this mourning dove managed to avoid such fates, and a pair of young “squabs” were eventually to be seen carefully picking their way through the flower beds looking for insects to feed themselves. Mission accomplished!
Robins are equally opportunistic about where they’ll nest. While some songbirds will only nest in trees or shrubs, any horizontal surface that will support their sturdily-built nest seems fair game for a robin.
At a back corner of our home, almost above the door, the rain gutter system makes a 30-degree turn, directing water cascading off the roof to the “down spout” that will bring the rain to the ground below.
There, on that short 30-degree section of gutter, a robin had managed to attach its cup-shaped nest of grass and string and mud and twigs, and in no time was “sitting” its nest to warm and hatch its pale blue eggs, so distinct in color that they are known as “robin’s-egg-blue.” While the female is the primary nest builder and incubator, her mate remains in the picture, and the pair will aggressively defend their eggs and young against possible predators.
“Predator” was apparently what this pair of robins decided we humans were whenever we emerged by the door near their down-spout nest. More than once we felt obliged to duck as a shape came hurtling in our direction from above. As much as we enjoy the birds that share our yard with us, being dive-bombed when exiting the back door was more than we cared to accommodate. After the young were successfully fledged, we removed the nest, and have discouraged the use of that location ever since.
The robins have gotten the message, and usually set up housekeeping in locations more amenable to them, and to us!
The adaptability of wild birds to many nesting options goes far beyond these examples. We anchor artificial nesting platforms on ponds and lakes, as substitutes for muskrat houses and islands of vegetation, these options being readily used by loons, geese, and other fowl. We erect nesting boxes for wood ducks, a practice largely responsible for their recovery from badly depleted numbers in the middle of the last century.
And, of course, there is the classic “bird house,” one or more of which so many of us have in our backyards, but which are often shunned for some other option preferred by the birds. Only they know why they make some of the homemaking choices they do!