Speaking of Nature: Waiting for the toddlers
Bill Danielson photo
A rough layout of my yard. The blue squares are nest boxes.
Bill Danielson photo
These house wren chicks were discovered in Box W in 2006.
Bill Danielson photo
This male bluebird was nesting in Box 22 in 2008.
Now that June is here, we lovers of nature can finally get ready for the season’s first batch of babies to begin to show themselves. April is a month of amore, May is a month of nesting and settling down and June is a month of toddlers taking their first tentative steps out into the world. I, for one, can’t wait.
To encourage the birds in my yard, I have erected five nest boxes and one nest platform. I have found this to be a good number because it allows many different choices for the birds without encouraging too much drama between neighbors living too close together. There is definitely drama early in the year when claims are being staked and disputed, but once the dust settles, there is relative harmony.
So as I think about this idea, I realize that this is the first year that I have had every nest box occupied and producing chicks at the same time. I also notice that my records of past tenants are not quite as detailed as I would like, but that is the nature of science. You ask a question and in answering it you generate three more questions.
Rather than get all caught up in what I don’t know, why don’t I take a moment to draw up a plan of my yard and then explain the things that I do know. So let’s see here … pencils, paper, hmmm. OK, done.
When I was working on forestry projects back in 2003, I purchased 100 aluminum “tree tags” that were numbered from 1 to 100. I’ve used many over the years, but last year I decided to number my nest boxes so I can keep track of them more carefully. As you can see from the map, I currently have five boxes in use and I think each deserves a little story.
Box 21 is to the west of my house in the largest expanse of lawn that I maintain. The entrance to the box faces east so I can see what’s going on from the window of my study. This year, with remarkable stealth, a pair of bluebirds moved in. I never saw any squabble and rarely heard the male sing, but there they were.
Box 21 has been featured in columns that I have written in previous years. Most notably, the column I wrote on house wrens in 2006 featured photographs of a pair of wrens that were nesting in it. On paper, this box appears to attract the most bluebirds, but it has been used fairly evenly by swallows, wrens and bluebirds over the years.
Box 22 is to the south of my house and is the farthest down the hill from any of the boxes I currently have. This year, there is an aggressive pair of tree swallows in 22 and they give me the evil eye any time I mow the lawn. Of all of this year’s birds, these swallows will often remain in their box the longest before finally flying away and they always stay close; circling overhead and watching my every move.
This box has also been featured in previous columns, specifically a bluebird column I wrote in 2008. The entrance to this box faces north, which means I get great light in the morning and late evening. In 2008, I spent an afternoon in my camera blind taking photos of the male delivering worms to his chicks that year and captured some of the best “parenting” photos in my collection.
Of all the boxes, Box 23 is the one that goes unused most often. It is on a very tall post and it is a little closer to the house, but it was made from the same wood as all of my other boxes and I can only hypothesize that this box sometimes falls within a no man’s land between 22 and 24.
It is not unusual for the wrens to fill this box with a dummy nest, nor is it unheard of to open the box and discover that it is occupied by hornets. However, this year it is occupied with a rambunctious pair of wrens. Wren nests are tricky to look into and because this box is on a particularly tall pole, I haven’t looked inside. But, the parents are very sassy whenever I venture close, so I know there are chicks in there.
Box 24 is occupied by the pair of tree swallows that I wrote about at the end of May. Once again the entrance to this box faces north, which allows me the best view of who’s coming and going. Unlike all of the other boxes, 24 is used almost exclusively by tree swallows. Last summer, a pair of bluebirds tried their luck, but they must have built their nest too close to the entrance because a blue jay managed to pull some of the nesting material out of the hole and they abandoned the box.
To the north of my house, between the house and the road, there is a stand of mixed conifers. Half of the trees are white pines, while the other half is made up mostly of blue spruce. This is a favorite nesting area for chipping sparrows and mourning doves and it is also a favorite haunt of the house wrens.
There was a line of gray birches growing along the side of my driveway, but they all succumbed to insects about three years ago. I left the trunks of these trees standing and I have enjoyed watching the woodpeckers reduce them to rubble as time has passed. I also mounted a nest box on the largest of these snags and I specifically did this for the wrens.
Over the winter, I noticed that the box had been filled with debris and was being used as winter quarters by someone. I never managed to figure out who it was and I never wanted to disturb whoever it was on such a cold winter, but I almost expected to see a little chimney with a tendril of smoke running up the side of the box.
This spring, the wrens got into it and quickly set up shop. They are in a perfect position to give me hell when I walk up to the mailbox and, believe me, I catch an earful. The wrens that took ownership of Box W were in serious competition with the wrens in Box 23 earlier in the year. Their animosity toward one another has cooled somewhat, but there are still occasional flare-ups that occur from time to time. It’s great fun to sit on my deck and listen to a pair of wrens fighting in the cottonwood tree that grows there.
Of all the nests, I expect the bluebirds in 21 will fledge their young first. The female might try a second nest, but then again she might move on. The wrens will definitely attempt multiple nests and I might get new swallows once the current pairs fledge their young. But these are just predictions and it will be fun to watch and see what actually happens.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com