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Out There: Bird homes and habits

Some bird species have very interesting nesting habits
“Out There” is a column by Ed McMackin. (Submitted)

By Ed McMackin, a biologist by training and a naturalist by nature

Most birds don’t really have a “home” like other animals, such as ground squirrels. There are a few bird species that do collectively make use of sticks and tree branches to support a home of sorts, with many entrances. They nest, roost, and take shelter in this tree-suspended mass. They leave to go find food.

A bird’s habitat or territory, where it spends most of its time feeding, roosting, seeking protection from adverse weather and perhaps looking after a nest full of young, could be called its home. I think of the Pacific Wren which spends most of its time, often in shady evergreen forests, where there is a babbling brook nearby. Here, they can also be heard sending out their “babbling” song. They forage, roos,t and nest within this “home range”.

The home of the Common Raven isn’t its nest, except when it’s a featherless, helpless, hungry, and a noisy young bird. When it grows up, the raven ventures from the nest, then continues to give a raucous scream for food whenever an adult is around. Once I found a nest of young ravens in the entrance to a tunnel. With the support of a few sticks, it hung from a narrow rock shelf. With the aid of a log with some remains of dead branches as steps, I managed to get up high enough to look at the young. They were the color of red salmon meat.

Raven young nest on tunnel wall. (Photo by Ed McMackin)
Raven young nest on tunnel wall. (Photo by Ed McMackin)

In adulthood, the home of a raven is usually aroosting area in secluded branches of evergreen trees. There is some squabbling over who a particular roost belongs to. Ravens have a wide range to look for food and quite often squabble over who gets the best morsels.

Many birds nest in trees, but there are a few ground-nesters. In these cases, the home for the young is simply a very slight depression on the bare ground. An example is the Killdeer’s “nest”. There is no home construction. The eggs and young are sheltered by the body of the adult. When the birds hatch out, the site is only their home until all the eggs are hatched and then they are on the run.

The other one that lays eggs on the bare ground is the Common Nighthawk. I have only ever seen two eggs at any nest site. The eggs are laid on the hard, bare ground located on a prominent, sparsely vegetated, rock mound or slope. Eggs and the young blend in with the ground’s surface, but other than that, the only protection are scattered clumps of low vegetation. There are usually many bare patches in a potential nesting area. I see no reason why they nest in one location and not another. When the young can move about I have often found them cuddled together, but in a different spot, on the bare ground. When they can fly a little, they may be fed while perched on a low tree branch.

Getting to the forest birds, it would seem to be that they have the most opportunities to be creative when it comes to nesting. They nest on tree limbs, in cavities and so on.

An additional, unusual nest-site is the “bark-flap”. That is where a hunk of bark loosens but remains next to the tree, over time, filling up with debris. I have heard of an American Robin nesting behind one of these flaps of bark. But the Brown Creeper uses this kind of site quite habitually. Not much nesting space is required for a Brown Creeper, so the site may be quite hidden to the non-observing eye.

Adult Pacific Wrens have the habit of picking their size of cavity entrance that is wider than high. An upturned tree root is a favorite place. They have also been known to use nest boxes, when placed in their habitat. These wrens will also build a nest, with the same type of entrance, in thick, tree-boughs that touch the ground. These nests are hard to find. I am not sure if the Pacific Wren builds several decoy nests like the Marsh Wren.

I once saw a nest built by a House Wren in a horizontally-hung, gallon glass jug. The jug was packed full of small sticks. Basically impenetrable!

The last puzzling nesting habit is possessed by the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The adults will plaster runny pitch around a nest box opening, or a natural tree cavity entrance. They may do that to keep ants out of the nest cavity.

What is good for birds may not be good for humans. If you were to ask me for my advice, I would say don’t put runny pitch around your front door.

READ MORE: Out There: Plant Taxonomy

About the Author: Black Press Media Staff

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