Many people work hard to make their gardens attractive to birds by setting up bird feeders, by growing plants that provide food and shelter for birds, and by keeping fresh water available year-round. But one of the most exciting ways to experience birds in your garden is to actually see them nesting in the low branches of an apple tree, in the azalea bushes, deep in a wisteria, in a holly or way up in a venerable oak. There's nothing quite like watching birds build a nest and raise their young right in your garden.
"It's a lot of fun. Finding a nest is like finding a treasure," says Robyn Bailey, who works with the NestWatch program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. When people find a nest, they often think they shouldn't look too closely, but it's perfectly all right to watch.
"There's nothing like getting a glimpse into the intimate aspects of a bird's life cycle," Bailey says. She started her career as an official nest searcher, collecting information about nests for Cornell researchers, and now works closely with NestWatch, which encourages everyone to become an amateur bird biologist, tracking birds as they build their nests and raise their young.
Birds scouting for a place to build a nest are looking for more than a sturdy limb. They're hunting for habitat. A safe spot for a nest is part of that, but they also need water and food, in other words, plenty of bugs. Insects (and spiders) are full of protein, and they are the primary diet of most nestlings.
A garden with a bit of leaf litter under the shrubs looks very appealing to wrens and brown thrashers; they both turn over leaves constantly, snapping up bugs for themselves and their chicks. Birds also look for insects in the craggy bark of trees, on rose bushes, in the vegetable garden, under in the eaves, in every nook and cranny. Some birds (kingbirds, swallows, bluebirds and others) snatch flying insects out of the air. "Something like 4,000 insects are required for a chickadee to raise a clutch," Bailey says.
Most people find their first nest accidentally, she says. You might be trimming the shrubs and discover a cardinal sitting on her eggs, or you'll see a mockingbird coming and going from the boxwoods and hear the eager nestlings wake up with a peep every time she disappears down into the greenery. Some birds build their nests in plain view, in the tangled vines on a rose arbor or in a hanging basket on the porch. Carolina wrens, in particular, are not shy about nesting in potted plants, window boxes "or any little scrap of habitat," Bailey says.
Birdhouses -- the professionals call them nesting boxes -- enable you a to attract cavity-nesting birds, such as wrens, bluebirds, titmice, chickadees and woodpeckers, to a spot you know you won't miss. They're handsome architectural features in their own right, in classic or modern styles. Nesting boxes should be sturdy and well-ventilated; they do not need outside perches.
Once you find a nest in your own garden or in your neighborhood, you'll pick up on clues and start to see more -- you may discover a nest while you're walking the dog, or spot a mockingbird's nest in the bushes at the grocery-store parking lot. "It gets easier every time you find one," Bailey says.
Nests are all different, you'll discover. Some birds are tidy housekeepers, and others are scavengers, cobbling together their nests with unexpected assortments of local materials. Robins build rustic nests of grass and twigs, held together with mud. A blue jay's nest might incorporate scraps of plastic plant labels or twist-ties from the garden. A hummingbird nest, if you're lucky enough to spot one, is made with moss and small bits of bark and leaves, all held together with spider silk and camouflaged with lichen.
"They're all beautiful," Bailey says. "You have to respect the engineering that goes into a nest."
When you find a nest or discover birds building one, don't interfere with them. By the time they lay their eggs, they're pretty well committed to the nest they have built, Bailey says, and you can safely check on the nest every few days. It's OK to take pictures of the eggs or nestlings, but don't use the flash feature on your camera, and don't become a nuisance, she says. Don't handle the eggs. And go to the NestWatch web site to report on what you have found: it's a chance to contribute to important research, "measuring nature's success" in terms of nests, eggs and fledglings, NestWatch says. The science is important, but the rewards are measured in other ways, too.
"To me, watching nests is the most rewarding aspect of bird-watching as a hobby," Bailey says. She especially loves "that moment when the chicks are sitting on the edge of the nest getting ready to take their first flight." At that moment, you're flying, too.
NOTES ON NESTS
For more nest-watching ideas and resources check the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's NestWatch website (nestwatch.org), which includes information about birds and their nests and nesting habits, plans for nesting boxes and platforms, and suggestions on how and where to place them. YardMap (yardmap.org), also sponsored by the Cornell lab, encourages gardeners to map their property, showing backyard bird habitat features.
Here are some ideas to encourage birds to make their homes in your garden from Robyn Bailey, program assistant for both NestWatch and YardMap:
-- Provide nesting boxes.
-- Make nesting material available. You could fill a small basket with bits of wool or fabric scraps, feathers from an old pillow, shredded paper, cotton balls and short pieces of string. Leave it in an open place on the porch, or stuff it into a wire basket and hang it from a branch.
-- Do not touch birds' eggs. If a chick falls out of a nest before it is even able to stand on its own two feet, put it back quickly and gently, then move away from the nest.
-- Do not use insecticides and herbicides during nesting season. Most songbirds feed their nestlings insects.
-- When birds are nesting and nestlings are starting to fledge, "keep your cats inside," Bailey says. Young birds "need two or three days to figure out where they are and how to fly."
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