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.

Posts about Birds in the backyard

House Sparrows

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 29, 2014 - 11:10 PM

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.

Hatchings

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 4, 2014 - 12:54 PM

The female Canada Goose nesting on our pond hatched six goslings early Tuesday morning. They spent the day under her wings, moving to the water sometime this (Wednesday) morning. Mid-day Tuesday the Hooded Merganser nesting in one of our duck boxes appeared with four chicks. As soon as the geese left the platform, she and the chicks moved in. They can be seen climbing aboard in the lower left corner of the platform.

Birds and your garden -- a new book

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 18, 2014 - 9:23 PM

Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds, Mariette Nowak, University of Wisconsin Press, soft cover, 335 pages, index, heavily illustrated, $34.95

About once a year I receive for review a book purporting to guide birders to a yard/garden/landscape that attracts birds. This book, “Birdscaping in the Midwest,” is the first to deliver fully on the promise, plus more. 

It covers far more topics than other books I’ve seen, in greater detail, with better text. It has illustrations not only beautiful (check the Tufted Titmouse photo on page 161) but also helpful. It has diagrams that show you not only which plants to use but how to place them in a garden for best effect. There are lists for everything, and sources for everything, the latter including books and websites.

If the book was a bird it would be a big bird. If it was a flower it would be a gorgeous flower.

The author, Mariette Nowak, is a professional, leader of a native plant and landscape group and for the Lakeland Audubon Society in Milwaukee. She is a public speaker on landscaping, native plants, and birds. Before retirement she was director of the Wehr Nature Center within the Milwaukee County park system.

The book offers an education on native plants and birds. It would be interesting even if you have no plans for a garden. However, once you’ve page through it, the urge to make a plan and find a shovel could be strong. 

Here is the table of contents: 

Birds and Plants: an ancient collaboration, going native, the case against exotics.

Gallery of Bird-habitat Gardens: photos.

Native Habitat for Birds — the basics: getting started, planning and design, site prep and planting.

Bird-habitat Gardens for Specific Birds: gardens for hummingbirds, prairie birds, migratory birds, winter birds, and birds of the savanna, woodlands, wetlands, and scrublands. Plus birdbaths and water gardens.

Midwestern Plants that Attract Birds: trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, sedges, and rushes.

Maintaining and Enhancing Your Garden, with information on bird housing and bird feeding, and advice on solving problems should they occur.

Have you ever bought a packet of assorted wildflower seeds? I have. Bad idea, Ms. Nowak tells us. She writes of tests that have shown the average such packet to contain as much as 30 percent exotic-plant seed (you don’t want these!), and germination rates as low as 40 percent. The author advises buying seed from nurseries that specialize in native plants.

There is a particular article discussing a Minnesota yard, one cursed with buckthorn. The removal and replacement is clearly and thoroughly discussed. I read this with interest. I’m in the midst of buckthorn removal, given the almost 100 percent viability of every seed in every berry, a project that might last a lifetime.

The book would be valuable for a gardener who has no pointed interest in birds as well as birders, even those who don’t garden but want to know more about habitat, a key to finding birds. I suspect it would lead either in the direction of the other. There is almost as much information here about birds as there is about plants. This book deserves a place on the shelf next to your favorite bird guide book.

How hard can it be to build a duck nesting box?

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 25, 2014 - 10:12 AM

Is building a duck nesting box a test of possible cognitive degeneration and/or onset of significant memory deficiencies, or am I just a really crappy carpenter?

Yesterday I built three duck nesting boxes. The end result will be one box because the first two assemblies were unassembled and retrofitted to accommodate unexplained error in measurement. In one case I needed congruent sides, cutting one, then using it as pattern for the second. This involved carefully tracing its outline on a second board, then cutting on the lines, a skill acquired in kindergarten. Yet the second side turned out a quarter inch shorter than the first. 

I had to cut the first side down to size. This happened twice. I was building an ever-shrinking duck box. 

It didn’t help that one of the boards I bought was a quarter-inch narrower than the others. That speaks to the wisdom of cheap lumber. 

Today I will attach the front of the box, with an entry hole that looks exactly like it was made by a large woodpecker, which is a real-life touch not mentioned in the plans I was using. The plans, by the way, come from the Minnesota DNR publication “Woodworking for Wildlife.” Carroll Henderson wrote the book and supervised the detailed drawings. I’m certain he made things as simple as possible. I mean, he includes a plan for building a bluebird nesting box from a single board. How complicated can that be?

I’m counting on Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, potential tenants, having a tiny sense of aesthetics, favoring practical considerations. I will mount the box on a steel pole in the far recesses of the marsh behind our house, where it will not be seen by humans.

I’m going build a second box, employing the lessons of the first. I’m hoping to confirm that the answer to my question is that I’m a crappy carpenter, but with potential for improvement.

Nearby nesters

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 22, 2014 - 9:51 AM

Here are the pair of Red-tailed Hawks that are nesting near our home. In the first photo the birds are in the upper righrt corner, one of them taking flight. The nest is at upper left. The second photo shows one of the birds eating, at right, while its mate watches, left. The pair of Wood Ducks are nesting in a box at the edge of the pond in our back yard. 

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