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Nesting Birds (What Time is it in Nature)

April 30, 2015

At Prairie Ridge, we participate in over 40 citizen science projects. One of the most popular with our visitors is Nest Watch, one of the projects that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology makes available to the public. To participate, citizen scientists either find a bird nest or put a nest box in their yard and then monitor the progress of any eggs and chicks that result.

At Prairie Ridge, we have a couple dozen nest boxes, platforms, and cups that we monitor regularly each year with the help of visitors attending programs, our volunteers, and our interns. Recently, we’ve had a lot of activity! The Purple Martins started returning to the grounds just over a month ago, but they have already laid several eggs that will soon become naked chicks:

Purple martin chicks

Purple Martins, like many of the birds that use the artificial nest structures we provide, are cavity nesting birds. Because people tend to cut down soft or dead trees in urban areas for aesthetic reasons, there are limited nesting sites available for Purple Martins. They have come to rely heavily on nests provided by people, like the Purple Martin condo and gourds they have colonized at Prairie Ridge.

Eastern Bluebird are bright blue birds, but so are their eggs!

Bluebird eggs

Even before the eggs are laid, however, you can often tell when a Bluebird has built a nest. They favor nests made of long pieces of grass or pine needles that they wrap around the interior of the nest boxes, forming a nest with a sort of basket-like appearance.  Sometimes they will line the nests with soft materials, but we typically see the eggs sitting right on the needles and grasses.

While many people provide Bluebird nest boxes in the hopes of having Bluebirds nest in them, they are sometimes used by other birds. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is another bird species that relies on cavity nests and finds them in short supply in the pine forests they prefer. They will sometime take advantage of Bluebird boxes if they are not too far from the forest edge and build a nest inside:

Brown headed nuthatch chicks

If they’re lucky, the nest will go unnoticed by Bluebirds in the area until the chicks fledge and leave the nest. However, Bluebirds will occasionally take over a nest box in which a Brown-headed Nuthatch has built a nest, destroying the nest and any eggs or chicks inside.  If you have Brown-headed Nuthatches in an area and want to give them a chance to use a Bluebird box, you can help protect them fairly easily! Bluebirds are quite a bit larger than Nuthatches, so simply affixing a commercially available metal plate to the nest entrance that decreases the size of the opening is sufficient to exclude the Bluebirds (they can’t fit through the smaller hole) while allowing the Nuthatches to nest undisturbed. There are also nest boxes available made specifically with Brown-headed Nuthatches in mind that come with a smaller diameter opening.

Another bird that will sometimes use a Bluebird box is the Carolina Chickadee:

Carolina chickadee chicks

Chickadee nests are easy to tell apart from Bluebird nests! In contrast to the grassy/pine needle nests favored by Bluebirds, Chickadees create soft, plush nests. The nests we encounter at Prairie Ridge are frequently filled with soft mosses and plant materials, then lined with downy feathers. You may also see rabbit hair lining the nests.

House Finches are a relatively recent arrival in the eastern US, having moved across the country from the west over the last few decades. We find them nesting at Prairie Ridge now:

House finch chicks

The freshly hatched chicks are quite fluffy, with the appearance of dandelion fluff! You will often find these birds nesting in the nest cups on the four corners of the bird blind near the pond.

It’s always fun to see the baby birds in the nests at Prairie Ridge! We do ask, however, that you leave the birds alone during your visit. We only open the nest boxes a few times a week to minimize the disturbance to the adult birds and their young and opening them when it is too cold can injure the helpless chicks. If you would like to see the babies, you can do so during our spring Citizen Science Saturday walks! The next nest program is coming up on May 9th, so please join us for a great chance to see some local bird nests, eggs, and chicks!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Purple Martin photo by Chris Goforth; other photos by Sehdia Mansaray, Prairie Ridge Spring 2015 intern)

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