Rivals for Avian Real Estate

Brown-headed nuthatch at work on creating a new nest. Photo by © Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

You may have noticed that spring has sprung earlier than usual in 2023. The USA National Phenology Network gathers, organizes and disseminates information on the timing of seasonal events related to plants and animals. Their data showed that in our area we were already experiencing the first signs of spring roundabout 7 February this year!

In the second week of February, several brown-headed nuthatches were already quite busy working on new nest holes or refurbishing older ones in preparation for nesting season. Those visiting my yard were not creating new digs but did check out nesting boxes. There are several at the front and back of my home, which helped get my yard certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Federation of Wildlife.

House wrens looking for other birds’ nests. Both photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

Having multiple nesting boxes is useful as the early-nesting birds may find that they have fierce competition for their real estate. Later-arriving migrants, such as house wrens, may try to take over a nesting site, even destroying already laid eggs. One year, a house wren tried to eliminate competition for insects needed by her own babies by pecking at brown-headed nuthatch nestlings before they fledged. It was a shock for me to learn about this aggressive behavior.

Top left: Eastern bluebird investigating chickadee nest. Top right: chickadee continuing nest building. Bottom: chickadee surveying surroundings from atop the nest. All photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

Usually, the real estate rivalry seems to revolve around who is quickest at establishing a good nest. This year, one pair of Carolina chickadees decided against a nesting box and chose a gourd I had hung out last year. They have been assiduous in finding nice soft materials for lining the nest and appear to have prevailed over Eastern bluebirds. The house wrens have not yet arrived, and I hope the chickadees have a successful brood.

Top left: metal sculpture chosen for nest. Top right: Carolina wren bringing nesting material. Bottom left: male wren feeding female taking a break. Bottom right: wren peeking out of nest. All photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

A pair of Carolina wrens chose an unusual nesting site this year. I have a metal sculpture of a chicken, which I moved from the yard to the porch during one of our storm alerts. Before moving it back to the garden, I discovered the wrens were carrying pine needles and plant materials to the sculpture. They completed the nest very quickly. Mom has been sitting on the nest and dad is bringing her dried mealworms from time to time as a treat.

Pine warbler collecting cattail fluff for nest. All photos by © Maria de Bruyn.

Even if you can’t put out a nesting box, you can help out the birds by offering them nesting materials. A pile of pine needles may be popular. Cat or dog hair from animals not treated with liquid flea preventatives can be a desired nesting resource. This past year, I was able to get some cattails growing in a large pot and saw that a resident pine warbler has been collecting the fluff, which was a nice surprise.

If any of you have some interesting nesting observations to share, please do so in the comments section as I’d love to hear about them Hope you enjoy the warmer spring days that are coming up!  

Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, coordinates a nature-themed book club, posts on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bruynmariade/) and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.

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