Bird Lady Blog

August 17, 2017

Garden Birds


Dark-Eyed Junco

I received a couple of e-mails lately about small, secretive, brown-reddish birds building nests in planters around Munds Park and Flagstaff. One of the writers sent me this great photo of her bird near the planter it built a nest in, on the deck of a home in Forest Highlands, and another reader in Munds Park sent me a photo of the eggs in her nest – in an artificial plant on her property.  Both asked if I knew what bird it was, and luckily these are pretty easy to identify.  Their garden bird is a Dark-Eyed Junco, a sparrow-like bird that favors our yards in search of nesting spots as well as food, typically insects and seeds.  Most of the time I see this bird on the ground foraging and only very rarely do I see it at one of my deck feeders.  But one spring it was the first bird that showed up at my feeders after they were just hung.

The American Robin is another bird that frequents our gardens. A friend named Robin told me she specifically plants strawberries each year to attract Robins – and it works!  The American Robin, probably best known for pulling long earthworms and grubs out of lawns in the Midwest and back East, also eats fruit, so berry plants are another good way to attract them.  The American Robin is the state bird of Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  Although the American Robin is a true thrush, it was named a Robin by English settlers who were homesick for their native Robin.  The General Assembly of Connecticut adopted the American Robin as its state bird in 1943.  It joins the Sperm Whale as the state animal and the Praying Mantis as the state insect.  In Wisconsin, school children selected the American Robin as their state bird by voting during 1926 and 1927.  In Michigan, the Audubon Society selected the “Robin Redbreast” as the official state bird 1931.  Later, in 2003, school children lobbied the legislature to change the Michigan state bird to Kirtland’s Warbler, but they were not successful, and that’s another story in itself.

Another garden bird is the House Wren, a small, plain brown bird with a big voice. It loves to nest in human-made small places, including nest boxes, but it can be found nesting in a fence hole, an old shoe, a basket, shoe box, or empty can.  While doing my research I even read about a pair of House Wrens that built a nest on the rear of an automobile axel in 1937 in a car that was used daily.  When the car was driven, the Wrens went along.  In the end the eggs hatched and the birds fledged successfully.  One golfing friend told me there was quite a scene for a while in her front yard as a pair of House Wrens bickered back and forth about which nest box the female wren would settle on.  Male House Wrens start multiple nests and then the female chooses the one she prefers.  Sounds like a good arrangement to me.

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January 1, 2016

Brown-Headed Cowbirds


Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Several readers have told me that birds are building nests on their property, and some have sent photos.  Martha on Reindeer has two nest boxes that are supposed to be for Western Bluebirds but are now occupied by nesting House Wrens.  This particular House Wren in Martha’s photo is bringing in sticks wider than the width of the hole and somehow, either by luck or instinct, manages to get enough twigs fitted through the hole and into the nest box to build her nest.  Cindi and Kathy on Turkey Trail also reported they have nesting House Wrens in one of their next boxes.

Alan and Cheryl on Wildcat sent me a great photo of eye-catching blue American Robin eggs in a nest on their property.  At the time of this writing, the chicks hatched and are growing on a daily basis.  The next photo they sent me was of open baby bird mouths waiting for the proverbial worm, and the third photo showed how they were developing their feathers while still demanding food every time a parent approached the nest.  I think the nest is amazing – all the twigs tightly woven together to make a little cup perfectly fitted for the eggs.

I also heard from Lu and Don who live on Lake Odell, and they had a complaint – too many Brown-Headed Cowbirds dominating their bird feeder area.  Brown-Headed Cowbirds are one bird I haven’t written about before; they have not been high on my list.  They have a unique approach to nest building – they don’t build nests at all and instead lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.  They are considered a parasite because they lay an egg in another bird’s nest, usually a smaller bird like a warbler, sparrow, or vireo, and often they toss out one of the eggs already in the nest.  Brown-Headed Cowbirds hatch faster than the host bird’s eggs, and their chicks are larger, so they compete with the host bird’s babies and often cause them to starve to death.

In years past, Brown-Headed Cowbirds still had a balance in nature; much of the time they were found following herds of buffalo.  But then humans made changes to the landscape by cutting into forests with roads, introducing cattle, and causing deforestation, so the habitat for Brown-Headed Cowbirds changed and made it easier for them to find the nests of host birds, and therefore to multiply.  Cowbirds can lay 30-40 eggs within a breeding season, negatively affecting the nests of that many host birds.  The Brown-Headed Cowbird is considered one of the key reasons for songbird decline in North America.

What can we do to help stop this Brown-Headed Cowbird trend?  On a big picture, the best approach is landscape management – ensuring large tracts of land are available for other native birds and minimizing fragmented landscapes.  On an individual scale, you can use tube feeders with smaller perches and no catch basin at the bottom.  Don’t use tray feeders, and avoid sunflower seeds and cracked corn.  At our home in Munds Park at the edge of Munds Canyon, I have a tray feeder (frequented by Band-Tailed Pigeons) and a sunflower feeder, used by all types of birds, but never frequented by Brown-Headed Cowbirds because our home is in the woods, not in an open area.  At Lake Odell, however, the Brown-Headed Cowbirds stay in flocks with Red-Winged Blackbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds, so they will be harder to control.  Sticking with a nyger seed feeder, suet feeder, and a peanut feeder is probably the best way to still attract birds and discourage Brown-Headed Cowbirds.  I also have read that Brown-Headed Cowbirds do not favor safflower seeds, which might be good to try as an alternative to sunflower seeds.

July 26, 2014

“House” Birds

Filed under: Birding,Birdwatchers,House Wren,Munds Park Birding — Munds Park Birding @ 3:06 pm

House Wren Courtesy of Gordon Karre

House Wren Courtesy of Gordon Karre

There are three species of birds here in Munds Park with the word “House” in their name.  Can you guess what they are?  (At this point you should close your eyes and stop reading and think.)

 Let me start with my least favorite.  It is the non-native House Sparrow, previously called “English Sparrow”.  Fortunately we don’t see them much here in the forest because they prefer human habitat.  I have seen them most often around the commercial buildings, especially the gas stations, at the intersection of Pinewood Boulevard and I-17.  These European sparrows were introduced purposely into Central Park, New York City, in the mid-1800’s and then over and over again in other parts of the East because people thought the sparrows would eat insect pests.  Well, no, they eat just about anything, and worse yet, they nest in cavities such as nest boxes, so they take away both food sources and nesting sites of our native song birds.  By the time scientists, farmers, environmentalists, and regular citizens realized how badly these birds were upsetting the natural order, it was too late.  We now have about 150 million of these birds in the continental U.S. and all I can say is that I am glad they are not abundant in Munds Park.  They are not protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act Treaty of 1918 because they are non-native, so you can eliminate them here or anywhere else in the U.S.  For a good article about how to TRY to control these birds, go the www.allaboutbirds.org and read “The Trouble with House Sparrows” article.   

There are two other “House” birds here that I always welcome.  House Wrens are nesting right up the street from me in a reader’s nest box.  The owner told me by e-mail that she just recently heard chirps coming from inside the box as the parents fly back and forth keeping the babies fed.  For such a tiny bird, the House Wren has a loud and insistent warble, and you will often hear it before seeing it.  It is a small, brown, and non-descript bird found around the country in backyards, parks, and open woods.  It loves to build its nest in man-made boxes as well as any other handy spots such as holes in fence posts, boots, old cardboard boxes, abandoned flower pots, and so on.   A couple of facts I’ve learned about House Wrens is that they only weigh as much as two quarters.  But they can wage a fierce battle for a nesting site, harassing much larger competitors, and they are known to drag out eggs or hatchlings from sites they want. 

The last “House” is the House Finch.  Again, I don’t see them too often here in Munds Park, but they are abundant in the Phoenix area.  Where I have seen or heard them is around the back nine of the golf course at Pinewood Country Club.  They tend to like suburbia more than camping in the forest, so you will find them in areas with “yards” versus areas of lots of pine and oak, and they do not use nest boxes.  They are brown-streaked, and the head, throat, and rump of the males are typically pink-red.  They are larger than the Pine Siskins you have at your feeders.  I really enjoy the House Finches’ warbling in the spring, unlike the House Sparrow,  which just has one repeated “cheep” that after awhile becomes annoying, at least in my opinion.

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