A new bird showed up at the feeder a few weeks ago that I didn’t recognize. Despite photos and books and apps it took me a while to figure out what it is. I’ve finally decided that my new visitor is a brown-headed cowbird.
I’ve learned that what this bird lacks in attractiveness, it makes up for in audacity. Notably, these birds do not build nests. Nope. Not at all. Instead, they lay their eggs in active nests of other birds. Brown-headed cowbirds will use nests of all shapes in sizes in a variety of locations including marshes, on the forest floor, in shrubs, at the tops of trees, and even in tree cavities. And they’re not overly picky about who they leave their eggs with. Studies have also revealed that cowbirds will leave their eggs in the nests of over 220 different foster species, anything from tiny kinglets to much larger meadowlarks. Before laying their eggs, cowbirds watch other birds building nests. Then, when the time is right, they flush the parents from a nest and lay the cowbird eggs among the others. Apparently they even choose nests where the size of the eggs is smaller than their own. How to do they know this???
Female cowbirds can lay an egg a day for several weeks in a row. She may lay 40 or more in a single season. And once she lays her eggs, she done. As in, she does not rear her young at all. She leaves it to the foster family. This is called brood parasitism (new term!) – as Merriam says, “characterized by a bird of one species laying its eggs in the nest of a bird of another species and giving no parental care to the eggs.” Unfortunately for the foster family, young cowbirds will sometimes push the other eggs out of the nest. Some birds do recognize the cowbirds eggs as not their own. Larger species will simply crack or remove the cowbird eggs; smaller bird that cannot physically manage this may build a new nest over the old, like the yellow warbler does. Overall, though, most birds do not recognize the cowbird eggs as different, and they end up rearing another bird’s young.
It gets even more interesting – the cowbird eggs hatch often faster than their foster siblings. This gives them an advantage in getting more food from the parents. In addition, they usually grow faster than the others and will sometimes toss the smaller birds out of the nest or smother them. Yikes. Makes me wonder where my neighborhood cowbird has laid its eggs and hope that they are getting along with their foster siblings.
The most common visitors to my feeders are house finches. Admittedly, they became part of the landscape as I kept my eye out for new or rarer birds. But this past weekend I decided to take my own advice (part of a picture book I’m working on) and I took some time to get to know my feathered neighbors. And while house finches may be common, they are amazing little birds.
House finches are native to the western US and Mexico but were brought to New England (to be sold as pets) and later set free in 1939. Now they are one of the most widespread birds in North America. These little birds are extremely adaptable and can thrive in a variety of habitats, from deserts to woodlands, and grasslands to urban areas. They will also nest in all kinds of places, such as cacti, hanging planters, pine trees, deciduous trees, rock ledges, and windowsills. Did I mention adaptable?
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. House finches differ in appearance – they vary by the size of their bills and bodies, by wing and tail length, and by color. Their coloring comes from the food they eat, thus the reason some house finches are more yellow or orange. Of course females are attracted to the reddest males, which to them signals that those individuals are healthy and will do their part tending to young. Not only that, house finches, across the country have different accents – some songs are short while others are long, and some have more syllables than others. In New York state, studies found that these accents even differed within one square mile. differ in appearance. But no matter where you live, the finches and their songs are a welcome addition to any neighborhood!
Introducing the bushtit – a tiny little bird with a hugely unfortunate name. Name aside, I was thrilled to find this new addition to the birds at my feeders. Apparently bushtits are very social, living in flocks of 10-40 individuals. Yet the bird at my window was alone (aside from all the chickadees, finches, and grackles). A friend told me that he (or she?) was probably doing recon to spread the word to the rest of the flock. Was my seed good enough? I waited. Well, apparently it’s good enough for my friend, but he or she has yet to tell everyone else. Still, I’m glad to have it visit.
I’ve learned that these little songbirds make hanging nests, like a tightly woven, stretchy pouch. Both the males and females work together, sometimes spending over a month, to build it. They use spider webs, moss, lichens, roots, and grass as building materials. The nest hangs up to 12 inches from an anchor point on a tree. At the top of the nest, which can be up to a foot long, is an entrance hole. This hole leads to the nest chamber, which is lined with fur, feathers, and downy plants for insulation.
In an unusual twist, breeding pairs of bushtits often have helpers! These helpers not only attend the nest, they also help raise the young alongside both parents. During the nesting season, helpers also sleep in the nest with the breeding pair. Usually this helper is an adult male, something not often seen among nesting birds.
I have yet to see my friend’s flock, but apparently bushtits don’t generally like feeders. Perhaps he or she is just more adventurous than the others and his/her family and friends are nearby. You bet I’m keeping an eye out!
In my opinion, robins are often overlooked or dismissed as ordinary and unremarkable. They are common, yes, found across almost the entire North American continent and well-adapted to coexisting with humans. But like with many things, what we think we know is only part of the story.
Photo credit: www.naturespicsonline.com
One seldom-discussed fact about robins is that the females are part engineer, part artist. They make their cup-shaped nests using the wrist of their wings to press together grass, twigs, paper, moss, feathers, and other materials. They then reinforce it with mud to make it sturdy. The final touch is lining the inside with soft grass. Their masterpieces are heavy and study nests, measuring about 6-8 inches wide and 3-6 inches deep.
Food-wise, robins have quite a varied diet. They eat both fruits and invertebrates, like earthworms, and insects. What they eat also depends on the time of day. Worms in the morning and fruits in the afternoon. Perhaps one of the most iconic images of robins is of them on lawns pulling worms out of the ground. But have you ever watched the whole hunting process? They rely on both sight and hearing. Often they will move in short bursts on the ground. Then they stop and tilt their head to one side, standing perfectly still. By doing this they can use both senses. They can hear the worms. And their sharp eyesight, with an eye turned and aimed at the ground, can see the signs of a worm near the surface.
So the next time you see a robin, watch it hunt or forage. Note what it’s eating and how, and what time of day it is. Then, if you are lucky, see if you can track where it goes and you may be able to spot its wonderful nest.
Photo Credit – Howcheng
As I walked along the creek path recently, I stopped to watch the ducks like I often do. After a moment I realized that one of those ducks was not like the others. Looking more closely, I noticed more of them. They were not the mallards that I am used to seeing. Instead, the males had a white stripe atop their heads and a green eyepatch. The females were more brown, with a grey-brown head. I later learned they are called wigeons, a word and a bird I’d never heard of before. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention.
Like other ducks, they congregate on a variety of water habitats – lakes, rivers, marshes, estuaries, bays, and tidal flats. They are mostly plant eaters, foraging on both land and in the water. During breeding season, though, they will eat more insects as well as aquatic invertebrates (which includes yummy morsels like horseflies, midges, beetles, crustaceans, and mollusks).
Males, like with many other birds, go to great lengths to attract a female during breeding season. However, male wigeons leave before eggs even hatch – yes, they are deadbeat dads. Lucky for moms, the newly hatched young leave the nest almost immediately and can feed themselves. We should all be so lucky. She does stay with the young brood, like a good mom, until they can fly (approximately 45-63 days after hatching).