Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
One of the nest boxes in our yard held an unusual House Wren nest this summer. The nest proper is quite visible from above. Wren nests far more often contain a narrow passageway leading from entry to nest proper, preventing a direct look at eggs or chicks. More unusual are the feathers woven into the stick structure (Cedar Waxwing feather at the far right with yellow tip), and the bits of flower petal added to the floor. I’ve seen many wren nests in a dozen years of tending nest boxes. The feathers and flowers are a first. The nest was built in section of four-inch PVC pipe, one of the box designs created by Steve Gilbertson of Aitkin.
Steve, by the way, has retired from building his popular and successful boxes, both the PVC model and his wooden Gilwood box. His box designs were used throughout Eastern Bluebird range by hundreds of bluebird fans. Located in proper habitat, House Wrens obviously found the boxes attractive, too, as did Tree Swallows.
Commmon Grackles, uncommon most of the year in our yard, thank goodness, are far too common on some early fall days. I remove feeder trays to reduce the amount of seed they eat, but the birds work hard to grip anything that gives them seed access, often sparring for position. Last week, as this acrobat and its companions raided us, I simply let the feeders go empty. We'll fill them today, with crossed fingers. Grackles are beautiful birds, very photogenic, all angles and iridescence, one of my favorites. Some days, actually, the seed is worth the photos. The bird in the second photo, being confronted (not fed!), is a juvenile, as shown by its red eyes.
Common Grackles are back our feeders. We rarely see them in spring or the middle days of summer. They wait until fall approaches. If robins are the signs of spring, perhaps grackles fill that role for fall. Grackles eat a lot of seed. They sit on the feeder trays, the perches too short to be comfortable for them. Removing the trays discourages them. I don’t do that, though, unless we get a flock of grackles. There were half a dozen this morning (Aug. 13), so, no problem. We’ve had dozens of them at one time. They empty feeders quickly, and keep regular bird visitors away.
Warblers are migrating, too. This past weekend at Lutsen, we watched warblers move through spruce trees, feeding as they leisurely moved south. Half of the warblers we saw were Cape Mays. Interesting that one species was so dominate.
Chimney Swifts also are prepping for the seasonal change. They are beginning to flock up in the evening, choosing a chimney for mass roosting at night. There might be such a chimney in your neighborhood. At heavy twilight, just before it is too dark to see, check a large chimney. Schools are good. Chimney Swifts are not hard to find during breeding season, if you keep watching the sky, particularly at dusk. Swifts hunt airborne insects, feeding exclusively in the air. Now is the time, though, to watch the swift show, dozens or hundreds of birds circling, then pouring into a chimney, gone, like magic.
The photos show swifts at a chimney, and two swifts in hand. The long claws on their toes allow them to cling to rough surfaces. The spines on their tail feathers help support them.
We’ve had two encounters with meal moths. One was seriously bad, the other educational.
Meals moths can arrive with the bird seed you buy. Suppliers are careful to exclude the pests, but once in a while they are part of the package. This is why seed should be kept in a covered metal container, preferably in your garage. Unprotected seed should never be kept in your house. You have been warned.
Time one: we discover the infestation when we open the pantry to find small green worms on everything containing flour, outside boxes and in. The moths like grain. They — or it — laid eggs there. The eggs hatched. We wondered how many unhatched eggs we had eaten, then laid bare the pantry.
That was long ago. More recently, we saw moths flying about the house. In the darkened living room they were flitting shadows against the television screen. I bought sticky traps baited with tiny wafers soaked in meal moth sex hormone. I tore open the package containing the wafer, and before I could arm the trap the air in the kitchen came alive with fliers. Moths were everywhere. They covered the sticky part of the trap before the day was over. I had to buy more traps.
Today, the sex trap is for Japanese beetles. (Why don’t birds eat them? They seem not to, for we have many of the large, shiny, very visible bugs on our mountain ash tree and wild grape vines.) I have used a Spectracide spray in the past, plastic container screwed to the garden hose. This produces more poison than I like, keeping one eye on the tree, the other on the drifting spray. I wanted to mix a bit of the chemical with water for use in a hand sprayer, but the container carried a no-no from the EPA.
Aside: I had close encounter recently with a man who probably would have mixed to his own formula, government be damned. He told me, in response to a question I had not thoroughly thought through, that climate change, if any, was the will of God. Later he told me that seat belts, which he did not use, were a government infringement on his freedom. His pest decisions are probably more direct than mine.
I thought of him as I drove to Home Depot to buy traps. The Spectracide web site offered customer endorsements for the traps. One satisfied customer reported trapping an estimated 4,000 beetles in just a few days. Wow. She warned about touching the hormone wafer, for you then would be besieged by crazed beetles. That didn’t happen here. Six hours into the effort we have about half a dozen pissed-off bugs buzzing in the bottom of the collection bag. We’re hopeful that tomorrow will be a better day. Four-thousand is overdoing it, but six isn’t enough.
Hopefully, removal of the beetles will ensure grapes ripening, which will please the birds here. We’ve made wine before with wild grapes, but never mastered Pinot Noir.
Buckthorn berries, by the way, also should be visible now, preparing to ripen. It is the female trees that bear fruit. Get rid of them. If you lack inclination to remove all of the buckthorn, at least cut down or poison the trees with fruit. Buy a brush-killer liquid. With a knife, scrape some bark from the buckthorn trunk, then paint the wound with the herbicide. It works well.
House Sparrows should not be allowed to use nest boxes intended for bluebirds or other native cavity nesters. A reader recently asked about a suspicious nest he found in a box he tends.
The nest described sounded like intrusion by House Sparrows, an invasive non-native species. If the nest is a mess of grass and feathers and paper and whatever, it's House Sparrows. I remove nest and eggs, if any.
What do other nests look like, so you don't trash the wrong one? Chickadees build with moss. Tree Swallows always incorporate feathers. Bluebirds make a nest nest of grass and/or pine needles, rarely other material. House Wrens use sticks and twigs exclusively.
Don't hesitate to open the box to check on the nest and possible occupants unless you suspect native birds are close to fledging. (You don't want to provoke early departure by opening a box containing young birds near fledging.) Knock first -- from the side, not in front of the opening-- to warn any adult birds in the box, then open. (I've watched people knock as they're tempted to peer into the box, as if to see exactly what is going to fly into their face. It will sharpen your reaction time.)
Birds will tolerate occasional quick looks into their nest box. Some people who provide boxes for bluebirds open the box daily to check on chick progress once the eggs hatch, not that I recommend that. The birds will not abandon the nest because of occasional, brief, discrete looks. If sparrows persist, find a new location for the box, or trap and dispose of the sparrows. It is the male you want to catch. Google "sparrow nest-box traps" for more information.
If you have nest boxes, they should be cleaned once nesting is complete. Open the box cautiously in case wasps or bumblebees are nesting there. I've found both inside boxes, and wasps also in nests attached to the outside bottom of the box. If there are wasps or bees, prop the door open if you can, and leave. Remove all nesting materials from non-occupied boxes. Wear gloves. Avoid the dust that will come from the box; do not stand downwind. I leave my boxes open over the winter, cleaning and closing in the spring, usually early April.
Below, a typical House Sparrow nest, a jammed collection of almost any material the bird could carry.
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