Monthly Archives: August 2017
Native wrens offset lack of size with fiercely competitive spirit
Nature’s not always neat and tidy. In fact, nature operates with rough-and-tumble mechanisms that, all too often, put some of our favorite birds at odds with each other. Like any other living creature, birds compete for resources — food, water, prime nesting real estate and even mates. Some of those pretty and entertaining birds at your feeder or bird baths have a dark side that isn’t often glimpsed.
When some insight is gained into these behaviors, it’s only human to feel discouraged, disenchanted or dismayed. Nonetheless, some recent emails have reminded me to look at some of these more distressing incidents as teaching moments.
Joy Stewart emailed me asking for advice on a problem with rival nesting birds in her yard.
“I have a total of 10 bird houses in my yard,” she wrote. “They are sized for a variety of bird species, and most years nearly all are filled—usually wrens, bluebirds, tree swallows, nuthatches or finches.”
At a recent get-together, she talked with a woman who also puts out bird houses and works hard to attract birds. “She talked at length about how bad house wrens are and how they destroy or kill bluebird eggs and babies,” Joy wrote. “She described how these wrens had just killed a house full of baby bluebirds. The woman also said house wrens are not native to this country.”
Joy noted that she usually tries to keep track of these types of issues, but the woman’s claims were all shocking news to her and made her wonder if such cutthroat competition might explain why her bluebirds seem to have absented themselves from her yard.
She ended her email by asking two questions. “Is the problem as bad as it sounds?” Joy inquired. “Also, how do I now work to get rid of the house wrens that have been coming to my two wren houses for over 10 years?”
She noted that just permanently taking down the houses would likely not work. “If nothing else, they will just move into the slightly larger houses,” she noted.
I replied to Joy’s email, noting that her friend is partly correct, but has confused house wren and house sparrow. From her description, I also noted that it appears she has house wrens in her yard.
The house wren is a native bird; the house sparrow is not a native bird, but was introduced into the country. Its true origins are Africa/Europe.
However, as cavity-nesting birds, both the sparrow and the wren compete with bluebirds. Legally, Joy can take steps to “control” house sparrows. As non-native birds, they are not protected.
However, the house wren is a native bird. I also happen to like house wrens. They have such bubbly, happy songs, and they’re good parents. They can raise as many as 10 young in one nest box.
Unfortunately, both the wren and the sparrow engage in ruthless behavior when it comes to nesting. Both species will evict bluebirds and other birds from boxes. They will even destroy eggs and young. Bluebirds can and do fight back, but despite their small size, house wrens are very feisty.
House wrens like brushy habitat that offers a lot of cover. I suggested Joy might consider trimming back or eliminating brush and hedges. Open space is also more attractive to bluebirds. Of course, chickadees and nuthatches also like brushy habitat and woodland edges, just like the house wrens.
It’s complicated, but I come down on the side of our native birds. House wrens have their place, but house sparrows should never have been in this country in the first place. I advised that Joy leave the wren boxes available to forestall the wrens deciding they have to fight other birds for a box. At the same time, I would not place any other boxes close (at least not within easy view) of the wren boxes, as wrens are very territorial.
In response to a follow-up query, I suggested that placing the boxes completely out of sight would be the best rule of thumb. Try to have a building, a wall, or perhaps a large tree blocking the wren boxes from other boxes. At least this way, perhaps the adult wrens won’t be viewing the competition. It would be advisable to keep as much space between the wren boxes and the boxes meant for other birds as is practical and possible.
An email from another reader likely involved a nesting wren. These small birds are rather notorious for choosing odd nesting sites. I’m thinking it is that tendency that explains Vivian Tester’s recent email asking for some suggestions for a somewhat unique problem.
“I’m looking for advice,” Vivian wrote. “I have a bird that has made a nest on my car windshield. I have driven the car a few times and she will fly away when I start the car, but I don’t want to do anything to harm her or the eggs.”
The situation had her baffled. “How long should it take for the process of laying eggs and them hatching and leaving the nest?” Vivian asked.
She noted that she had not been able to see any eggs. She added that the nest’s construction starts at the windshield and goes into the area under the hood. “I haven’t tried to open the hood in case it would destroy the nest,” she wrote.
Surprisingly, Vivian said the same thing happened last year but she just kept removing the nest. “I’m just not sure what I should do,” she wrote.
In my reply, I told Vivian that it sounds like she has a wren or perhaps a sparrow, and it can take 12-16 days for the eggs to hatch. The young must then spend another 10-12 days in the nest, so it could be at least four weeks for the entire process.
I suggested that, unless she could go without her car for a month, she should open the hood and gently remove the nest somewhere close by. A box or crate could hold the nest and the parent birds are likely to simply move from the car over to the new location for the nest. The parents are more attached to the nest itself than they are your car.
I admitted that I was sort of “winging” it on this problem. While a car is an odd choice for nesting, I’ve heard of birds such as swallows that nest on boats and then follow the boats along their river routes.
After I responded, Vivian emailed me back. “I wanted to update you on the bird nest,” she wrote. “I did move it today into a hanging basket just above my car.”
The nesting bird flew away when Vivian opened the hood. “I am hoping she will return since I did see four little eggs in it,” she wrote.
I believe Vivian’s bird is probably a Carolina wren. I’ve observed these wrens, a slightly larger relative of the house wren, nesting in an old apron my grandmother used as a bag for her clothespins, as well as a plastic shopping bag hanging from a nail in my garage. A pair also once tried to nest in the exhaust vent for my clothes dryer.
Worldwide, there are about 80 species of wrens. All but one of the world’s wrens are confined to the New World. A variety of common names describe the various species with some creativity, including such monikers as tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, white-headed wren, sepia-brown wren, fawn-breasted wren and moustached wren.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hummingbird numbers spike as summer season advances toward autumn
From the shade of my front porch, I watched about a half dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds cavort among the blooms of a large mimosa tree on a recent evening. The tree apparently holds an extraordinary attraction for the hummingbirds, as well as the pipevine swallowtail butterflies and other pollinating insects. I enjoyed watching the greenish hummingbirds zip among the profusion of pink mimosa blossoms, which have always reminded me of the thin fiber-optic filaments popular on some artificial Christmas trees and other decorations during the holidays. To draw so many different insects, as well as hummingbirds, the mimosa blooms must provide a rich source of nectar.
While I have almost wilted from the recent extended heat wave, the ruby-throated hummingbirds at my home appear to have downright thrived during these sunny, hot days of mid-summer. Once again, these tiny birds must have enjoyed a successful nesting season, based on the numbers of young hummers visiting both my feeders and flowers. The uptick in the presence of hummingbirds took place without much fanfare, but after a couple of months of “hummer doldrums,” it was impossible for any observer to miss the way these tiny birds have become much more prevalent in recent weeks.
Coinciding with this resurgence of the hummingbirds at my home, I received a post on Facebook from Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove. Apparently, Philip, too, has noticed that hummingbird numbers are on the rise.
“Seemed like a slow hummingbird summer,” he wrote. “But two days ago the babies started hitting the feeders and everything looks much brighter!”
I also enjoyed a recent phone conversation with Erwin resident Don Dutton, who wanted to know why hummingbirds have been scarce around his home this summer. I’ve noticed fewer hummers at my own home this summer, but it’s natural for numbers to fluctuate from year to year. I anticipate that numbers will rise as hummingbirds begin migrating south again in the coming weeks. At that time, the adult hummers will be joined by the young birds from this season’s successful nesting attempts.
Don shared that when he lived out west, he often visited Mount Charleston near Las Vegas, Nevada, where he saw swarms of hummingbirds comprised of various different species. In the eastern United States, the only nesting species is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
For readers who have felt slighted by hummers so far this season, perhaps it’s time to try your luck again at attracting them. The surest method is to keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. A visit to a plant nursery can also provide an abundance of blooms to use to lure hummers to your gardens. Some late-blooming summer flowers attractive to hummingbirds include canna, cardinal flower, gladiola and crocosmia. While the widely held belief is that hummingbirds prefer red blooms, they will gladly visit any flower that rewards them with a sip of nectar.
Late summer and early fall, even more so than spring, are usually the best times to enjoy hummingbirds, when they are usually at their most common. There are a couple of reasons for this annual increase. First, nesting female hummingbirds have reared their young, which then begin visiting feeders and gardens to compete with their elders at flower blossoms and sugar water feeders. Second, adult males and females that migrated farther north usually begin swinging southward again in late July and early August.
According to the website hummingbirds.net, mature male hummingbirds usually follow an earlier departure date than adult females and immature birds. The organizers of the website theorize that by leaving early in the fall, the adult male hummingbirds free up resources for their developing offspring. After all, it’s the least they can do since adult male hummingbirds play absolutely no role in helping females with the process of nesting and rearing young. All young hummingbirds are, in effect, raised by single mothers.
Despite their tiny size, hummingbirds are tough birds. One species, the rufous hummingbird, ranges as far north as Alaska. Several tropical species have adapted to the frigid conditions that occur at the higher elevations of the Andes Mountains.
As I have done in years past, I advise a patient but proactive approach for attracting hummingbirds. Keep feeders readily available. If possible, offer flowers, too. Don’t keep your landscape too tidy. A perfectly manicured lawn is like a desert for hummingbirds. Provide some shrubs and trees to provide cover and perching branches. Water features, particularly waterfalls and fountains, are also a reliable means of attracting hummingbirds, as well as other birds.
If you have felt slighted by hummers so far this year, keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to email@example.com.
Bryan Stevens has been writing about birds since 1995. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sleek elegance of cedar waxwing wins bird many fans
I still remember my first look at a cedar waxwing. Sleek as silk, wearing a mask like a bandit, with a jaunty crest atop its head, this fairly common bird commands attention when making an appearance in a yard or garden. Of course, it’s usually not alone, more often traveling as a member of a larger flock that can number as high as dozens or even hundreds of individuals.
Cedar waxwings win fans almost anywhere they go. Chances of luring these birds to your home and property can increase by offering some essential requirements. Tall trees, especially those that bear fruit, are attractive to these sociable birds. It’s more often water, not food, however, that will bring a flock of these birds close. They love a good splash in a bath, whether the source is a shallow stream or an ornamental pool set into the landscape.
As noted, they travel in often sizable flocks, usually in search of new food sources. The many members comprising a flock can deplete resources in a remarkably short time. During the winter season, I’ve watched a flock of waxwings make short work of a harvest of berries from a holly tree. Their nomadic lifestyles makes it nearly impossible to predict where cedar waxwings might make an appearance.
Based on early observation, the wild cherry trees scattered around the edges of my yard are fully laden with berries. As they ripen in late August and into September, the crop will likely attract waxwings as well as a host of other species.
Why is the term “waxwing” applied to this bird? According to the website All About Birds, the name comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of wing feathers. The site also notes that the precise function of these waxy tips is not known. There’s speculation among some experts that the bright red tips on the feathers could play a role in helping waxwings attract mates.
The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.
Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees.
As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.
Perhaps because of the late-summer abundance of bugs and berries, cedar waxwings are known for nesting late into the summer. They’re certainly not among the birds impatient to begin nesting as soon as temperatures turn mild in the spring.
Although a female brown-headed cowbird succeeds on occasion at slipping an egg into a waxwing nest, that attempt at foisting offspring onto unwitting foster parents is doomed. According to All About Birds, baby cowbirds will starve on the diet high in fruit fed to waxwing babies.
Now that you know a little more about this sociable and elegant songbird, keep an eye out for cedar waxwings visiting your yard or garden. I know my own wild cherry trees await their arrival.
Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email email@example.com.