Nesting season is in full swing in Pennsylvania
It’s nesting time for our avian friends. The earliest nesters have already fledged their first brood for the next generation, while others are busy building nests, laying eggs or feeding their young. The Carolina wrens at my home have already fledged their first brood and the pair is currently tending to a second clutch of five nestlings.
Our largest birds, the wild turkeys, are also incubating their eggs now. In fact, spring gobbler hunting season, which just ended, is timed to occur when the most hens are already bred and sitting on their eggs. Another large bird, the Canada goose, can be a very early nester. I have seen several broods of goslings on local ponds, wetlands and lakes.
While geese and turkeys are ground nesters, I am amazed at the wide diversity of nesting styles that our local birds employ. Baltimore orioles construct a hanging basket nest, generally high in the fork of a tree branch, and often over water. Lately, I have watched female orioles pulling coconut fibers from my flower boxes to weave into their intricate basket nests.
Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, wood ducks, great-crested flycatchers and others are cavity nesters. Just last week, I watched a pair of flickers excavating a cavity in a dead pitch pine tree at Scotia on State Game Lands 176. However, most birds, such as robins, mourning doves, cardinals, catbirds and yellow warblers, build cup nests in trees.
Late last month, while walking at the Soaring Eagle Wetland in Centre County, I spotted a yellow warbler carrying nesting material. I watched with binoculars as the bird entered a multiflora rosebush. Since I had never before spotted a warbler nest, I was curious. A few days later, I located the nest in the bush — only 3 feet above the ground — on the low side for a warbler that is known to nest 50 feet up in a tree. It was a well-constructed cup nest, made of grass and lined with white plant down or animal fur. A few days later, there were two speckled eggs in the nest and now the female is incubating.
I have constructed platforms on my house hoping to attract insect-eating phoebes. During the past five years, phoebes have used two of the four platforms, but often, they decide to nest on top of one of my floodlights or another obscure location. Last year, they shunned the platforms and built their mud, moss and grass nest precariously on the side of my house’s stone walls. A robin is using one of my platforms this spring.
Carolina wrens are by far the most unusual nesters. They have been known to build in old shoes and boots, in hanging planters, on wreaths and even in people’s basements. I currently have a Carolina wren incubating five eggs in a nest that the wrens built in a 32-ounce cup lying sideways in a basket that hangs on the wall in my garage. This is the fifth time in four years that wrens have nested there. Last summer, the Carolina wrens built a nest inside of an abandoned bald-faced hornet’s nest. Amazing!
Some birds, such as robins and red-eyed vireos, build very sturdy nests, while others, such as mourning doves, catbirds and cardinals seem not to be particularly good at building lasting nests. On several occasions, I have observed the eggs or young falling out of cardinal nests.
Then we have brown-headed cowbirds that do not build any nest at all. Instead, they are nest parasites — laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, and hoping that the other birds will raise their young as their own. Many birds do just that, but goldfinches and yellow warblers are adept at recognizing the foreign egg and will abandon the nest or build another tier on their nest over top of the cowbird egg.
Mother Nature is a cruel host and success for nesting birds is tenuous at best. Three different birds — a cardinal, robin and mourning dove — built nests along my lane this month. All the nests were within 15 yards of each other. None were successful.
Last summer my daughter watched a nest full of robins grow, only to see a black rat snake eat all of the young before they fledged. Blue jays are another big nest predator, as are free-roaming cats.
Local birder Nick Kerlin and I are monitoring nesting boxes at Soaring Eagle Wetland northeast of Port Matilda. While the boxes are meant to be homes for eastern bluebirds, they also attract tree swallows.
I thought that this would be a rewarding experience, but nests often result in tragedy. Last spring, a cold snap left bluebirds unable to find enough food, and the nestlings in two nests starved to death. Again this spring, the cold of early May made it difficult for the parents to locate enough insect food for their young.
I am happy to report that, out of the 21 boxes at Soaring Eagle Wetland, three bluebirds have fledged. A nesting box check by Kerlin last week revealed two boxes with four bluebird eggs each and eight boxes with tree swallow nests containing 41 eggs total.
Many well-meaning people don’t understand that parent birds care for their young even after they leave the nest. In most cases, it is best to leave the fledglings alone if you think that you found an abandoned baby bird.
Centre Wildlife Care, our local wildlife rehabilitator, is swamped with animals at this time of year and is currently full. Some of these animals are fledgling birds that probably should not have been picked up.
Licensed rehabilitator Robyn Graboski of Centre Wildlife shares this advice.
“If possible, nestlings should be placed back in their nest. Or you might create a make-shift nest and put the baby bird there. People can text me a photo of the bird and I can advise them about what is best, but they should never try to feed the baby. Information on the Internet is often not accurate.”
There is helpful information on their website, www.centrewildlifecare.org.
“If the baby bird is not in a safe place, maybe it is best to pick it up,” Graboski added. “We do a good job of caring for baby birds, but their momma does a better job.”