Meeting bird kids’ needs

Left: killdeer eggs in nest. Right: killdeer initiating broken-wing display to lure predators away from its nest. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

While many wildlife species are now raising their young, those easiest to observe are often our avian neighbors. For some birds, child-rearing is not a lengthy undertaking. Ruby-throated hummingbird fathers don’t participate in brooding or feeding their young, while the mothers end their care about a week after the babies leave the nest. Other birds spend much more time on family life.

Finding a place for a nest is a first order of business. At Cane Creek Reservoir, the killdeer always choose a site on gravel driveways or parking areas. The staff are great at protecting their nests, which most people don’t even notice as the eggs blend in with the gravel and rocks.

OWASA staff cordon off the area to ensure people stay away from the nests. In addition, both killdeer parents engage in broken-wing displays while moving progressively further away from the nesting area to encourage predators to go after them instead of the eggs.

Top left and right: temporary nest box installed by Duke Energy for Eastern bluebirds. Bottom left: final Eastern bluebird fledgling leaving nest box. Bottom right: Eastern bluebird parents checking nest box to ensure no baby remained in the nest box. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Some bird species often use nest boxes, such as Eastern bluebirds. They also look for sheltered areas as nest sites. When a pair of bluebirds installed their nest inside a Duke Energy electrical box, it was problematic. The apparatus needed to be kept in working order as it serves a water pump that can be used by the fire department.

To my surprise, on a subsequent visit, I discovered that the original nest had been placed in a temporary nest box. The service company encounters this problem regularly and relocates nests so that the birds can continue raising their family in their chosen location.

In my yard, the resident bluebirds have had two broods. Those in the second nest did not all fledge at once. Two left the nest box late one afternoon; the other three emerged the next morning. After they were all flying free, I went to the box to clean it out and was promptly strafed by both parents! The last two babies had fledged very quickly in succession, and mom and dad had not noticed the departure of No. 5. They were driving me away from the box so I quickly backed off so they could each look inside to see that no baby was being threatened!

Top left and right: blue-gray gnatcatcher attempting to drive away red-shouldered hawk. Bottom left: blue-gray gnatcatcher continuing attack on hawk. Bottom right: Eastern kingbird threatening red-shouldered hawk that is close to her nest. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Red-tailed hawks are chased away from nesting sites by common grackles, crows and red-winged blackbirds. Other birds, such as Eastern kingbirds and blue-gray gnatcatchers, attempt to drive away red-shouldered hawks, who are often actually more interested in eating amphibians and small rodents. These smaller birds are fearless parents, even landing atop the hawks’ heads in their efforts to drive them away.

Many adult birds are out looking for caterpillars and insects to feed their babies, even if feeders are accessible. As the fledglings grow, they continue begging for food, even when they can easily feed themselves. Watching rough-winged swallows for 20 minutes as they fed their offspring confirmed that they ensured each brood member received a meal.

Top left: Eastern bluebird parent with two fledglings, one of whom is begging for food. Top right: rough-winged swallow feeding offspring. Bottom left: great-crested flycatcher fledglings with parent. Bottom right: trio of young American crows. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

As the young birds grow, they may keep company with one another for a while. A trio of great-crested flycatchers cuddled up while waiting for their parents to arrive with welcome meals. Three American crow offspring are now traveling together around my neighborhood, sometimes on their own and sometimes accompanied by their parents when they come to feeders.

Young birds also watch their parents to learn useful behaviors. One day, while sitting on my back porch, I was alerted to a group of eight brown thrashers suddenly gathering near a brush pile. Usually, I only see two or three of these birds at a time. They were accompanied by a few Eastern towhees and Northern cardinals, which was also a surprise.

Top left: brown thrasher wing-flashing an alarm. Top right: thrasher observing copperhead snake heading for brush pile. Bottom left: young thrasher that was watching parental behavior. Bottom middle: female wood duck with four offspring. Bottom right: Canada goose gosling. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

The adult thrashers flashed their wings repeatedly as they walked around, closely watched by the young. I finally went outside and discovered the birds were sounding the alarm for a copperhead snake. The young thrashers were learning the alarm behavior from their parents as the reptile made for the cover of the brush pile. They continued sounding the alarm for a good quarter of an hour after the snake disappeared among the piled branches. Their warning system was a boon for me, too, reminding me to be careful in that part of the yard.

Nesting season is not over yet, as some birds produce second broods. Mother wood ducks are closely watching their offspring, who may fall prey to large snapping turtles in the ponds where they grow up. The Canada geese also stay close to their fluffy newborn goslings who look nothing like their feathered parents with their yellow down and nubs where wings will grow!

Do stay cool the coming month and consider checking out events related to National Moth Week in July! A listing of North Carolina events, most of which are free, is being kept up to date:

Maria de Bruyn participates in nature-oriented citizen science projects and volunteers for the Orange County Senior Center and non-profit groups removing invasive vegetation and planting native plants. See more of her photos on Instagram ( and in blogs at

This reporter can be reached at

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2 Comments on "Meeting bird kids’ needs"

  1. Interesting article. The photos really help with identifying the birds in the article. We used to have a few nests of the killdeers in our corn rows. But I haven’t seen any lately. But we had an unusual encounter with the male bluebird who is residing in the bluebird house. It stood outside our sliding glass doors, and pecked away so as to get our attention. He would even fly up and hang on to the screen and peck at the window. So I put a small pile of seeds on the deck. He didn’t want it. Don’t know what prompted him to tap on the window, but he finally stopped.

    • That’s interesting! Sometimes birds see their reflection in a mirror or window as a “rival” and will peck in an attempt to drive away the other bird. But that is often a window without a screen. I’m not sure what he was doing. Thanks for sharing that observation!

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