A year ago, I never thought I would be spending so much time compiling and evaluating data. The way I looked at it, “been there done that” when it came to scientific studies. For twenty years I was a professional scientist (initially in basic auditory research in academia, then clinical oncology research in a hospital setting and finally applied research, product development and market support for medical diagnostics in corporate America.) That was twenty years ago, and since then I’ve been a small business owner, dog trainer and instructor of Service Dog handlers for two decades. While my brain may always be more reasonable and logical than artistic, the dog training stint reminded me that there’s both art and science in most endeavors…. I suppose even hobbies…. and even a hobby I really didn’t think would rock my world as much as observing birds on our retired farm. I don’t want you to get me wrong. I’m providing some “data” here, but this isn’t a scientific report!
I find myself the happy landlord of over thirty nest boxes that we’ve erected all around our property. With that endeavor comes some level of responsibility. I once read that it’s better to refrain from hanging a bird house if you aren’t going to maintain it properly. Mostly, that implies that providing a safe haven for the invasive species like European Starlings and House Sparrows to procreate further is offensive to the native species that need cavities in which to raise their young. It disrupts the original balance and order which evolved without those adversarial species. While I do “birding” for recreation and personal enjoyment, I do take my hobby seriously when it comes to how I may affect the natural world around me.
This Spring, one which arrived on the tail of one of coldest late winter events ever (the Polar Vortex), left me aching to see my beloved Bluebirds return and start their little families. They were late, and I grew anxious with each passing day. But, I’m happy to say that they eventually arrived, they set up shop, and I’ve observed two pairs successfully fledge chicks, and three other pairs are in process of setting on eggs at this time.
The nest photos are fledglings I filmed about forty feet up a massive tree, about one hundred feet from where they were raised in box #15.
I’ve also seen Bluebird failures – specifically a female who I have named Raggedy Ann (the only wild bird I have ever named) because she looks a bit disheveled with feathers missing from her breast. When I first filmed her, Ann was feeding chick in Box #26. I am fairly certain I had seen a male at the box on the prior day. But, when I returned the next day to film, I only saw Ann. She was working hard to bring large insects back to the box, so I knew her chicks were fairly advanced in their development. The following day, again, I observed Ann. No male was in sight. I began to wonder if she had lost her mate and was struggling as a single parent. A week later Robert reported to me that he saw a dead chick hanging out of the box opening. I assumed Ann may have also perished. Perhaps she simply couldn’t raise those chicks on her own. Perhaps, she was killed by a predator or died from the root cause of her bedraggled appearance.
Then, a couple of weeks ago I spotted Ann and a male actively entering Box #19 (which is just about 150 feet from box #26.) It’s hard to say whether she paired up with a new mate, or if she was with her original mate (and I simply never saw him when I was observing their original box.) I was so excited to see her. She looked good and content with the new box – but she still sported the missing breast feathers. Robert checked the box and observed eggs. I was elated. But, a few days later, I failed to see either of them near the box. This lack of activity continued for a couple of days and I decided to open the box. Fearing that perhaps a House Wren had taken it over, I was happy to see no evidence of the wren’s twig nest. The lovely (typical) grass nest of a Bluebird was in the box, but there were no eggs. I’m not sure how that happened. Perhaps a raccoon was able to stick his paw in and steal the lovely blue jewels. Poor Raggedy Ann had failed on two attempts to successful raise a brood. But, it’s still early and I hope I see her again, soon.
The Tree Swallows arrived early and in large numbers this Spring. They began setting up shop and thus far I am aware of three clutches which fledged (boxes 5, 14 and 20.) There are also Tree swallow couples feeding chicks in four locations (boxes 10, 11, 21, 22.) However, House Wrens have displaced Tree Swallows in two boxes (boxes 16 & 24.)
House Wrens appear to have fledged chicks from box #2. They are incubating or feeding chicks in seven boxes (9, 13, 16, 17,18 and 24, 25.) There are large-twig nests in boxes 23 and 27 which I believe are the “pseudo-nests” associated with the wrens in boxes 24 and 25. This species has an interesting behavior of controlling nest boxes by filling them with large twigs all the way to the entrance hole, which they do not intend to use to raise their brood. I remember back in the 80’s when I lived in Chicago. During the snow season, on-street parking was limited (for snow removal services to have access to the larger streets.) Parking became prime, and when it snowed the spot had to be shoveled out. Folks would dig to get their car out in the morning so they could get to work. Then, they’d set up lawn chairs or other obstacles in that spot in a way to “reserve” the space for their return from work. Of course they had no legal rights to the specific parking spot, but after putting in all that work, they didn’t want to have to repeat the exercise again in the evening. I suspect that Wrens monopolize nearby boxes to thwart off nest box competition.
House Wrens have also displaced (taken over by removing nesting materials and eggs) from the boxes occupied by Tree Swallows. I can’t say I don’t have an intense emotional reaction when I discover the deed, but there is no morality in Nature.
Here are photos of the Tree Swallow pair that was occupying box # 18. At this point they had eggs. As I observed, they seemed to be quite intent (almost hyper-vigilant) on having one bird in the nest at all times. Perhaps that is because they were feeling the threat of the House Wren (shown in the series below – I caught a wren in the box the day before I shot photos of the swallows retaining ownership.)
The Wren that ultimately took over the box, removed the feathered nest and all but one egg that remained under the twig nest the Wren built in just hours.
The House Wrens have not come out of this Spring nest building unscathed. After I filmed a Tree Swallow pair considering the center box in my office yard (#6), they chose to avoid the conflict from House Sparrows that routinely sat atop the box. The box design (with a top slot) is marketed as House Sparrow proof, but that has not been my experience. We remove House Sparrow nests, but they still cause native species to consider moving to a more hospitable location. We removed a few House Sparrow nests from box #6 and they seemed to give up spending resources on that location. Then, a House Wren began building a nest in the box. I have to say that I have some emotional displeasure associated with House Wrens because they employ a strategy of nest site displacement of both Bluebirds and Tree swallows. However, I honor the natural order and recognize it is part of the balance that has evolved over thousands of years.
The Wren in box #6 was dealt a blow when Mother Nature applied her ruling to maintain the natural order of song bird populations on our little farm. We endured a storm with extremely high winds and the door to box #6 was blown open. The nest with eggs fell to the ground. Still, as a whole the House Wrens are doing well this year.
Here’s a table of the status of the nest box dwellings on our retired farm as of 6/13/2021.
On 4-11-21 I filmed a lovely Bluebird female perched atop and entering this box, but I didn’t seem much activity thereafter.
On 6-12-21 I observed a male and female Bluebird perched on either side of the box. I hoped it might be Raggedy Ann and her mate, but a storm was coming and I didn’t take the time to photograph the birds.
This box is along the fence of my office patio yard and I observed a House Wren build a nest in this box. I am not certain whether chicks fledged, but the box was empty on 6/13/21.
These boxes are along the east end of my office yard. They are relatively close to the house and House Sparrows find them attractive. I refer to them as the Planned Parenthood boxes as we remove the nests once they are well established to reduce the reproductive success of this species. They are currently empty.
This box is along the same fence as #3 and 4 and is usually occupied by the House Sparrows. However this year I watched Tree Swallows use the box. Based on the behavior of the birds, I suspect they successfully fledged their brood, but I didn’t witness it. On 6/13/21 there were a few pieces of what appears to be newer grass in the bottom.
This is the box that is centrally located in my office yard. As explained above, a House Wren established a nest with eggs, however a storm caused the door to open and the nest was destroyed.
This box is located not far from the front porch of our home. Earlier this year, it was occupied by a Bluebird pair that successfully fledged chicks. The top photo is of the female of that pair. It was taken 4/7/21. I was excited to find four Bluebird eggs in the box on 6/13/21 (photo below.) I suspect it may be the same pair that used the box earlier.
It appeared that House Sparrows were building a nest in this box. I have observed a sparrow atop the box, but that’s not definitive proof that the nest belongs to the sparrows. This box is not easy to access – as the way to open for cleaning is to unscrew the bottom panel. Today, Robert opened and confirmed it was House Sparrows and removed the nest.
Last year this box was used last year by House wrens, and it is again being used by that species this year. I discovered eggs on6/13/21.
We also refer to this box as “Matt’s box” as our friend Matt handmade it for us. It’s located in our young orchard. Last year a Bluebird couple fledged chicks from #10. This year a pair of Tree Swallows is raising their brood in the box.
A Tree Swallow pair has assumed occupancy of this box after we had to remove House sparrow nests three or four times until they were sufficiently discouraged to use the box. The swallows have been experiencing a House wren knocking on their door (so to speak) but thus far they remain in control. Because of that added stress that I’ve observed with this pair, I did not move in to open the box. I am assuming they have eggs, but no chicks hatched yet. There’s a still shot from 6/13/21 as well as a video showing the House wren showing up from 6/9/21.
Box #12 is a gourd designed for Purple Martins. We stuck it up in a woodsy area to serve the House wrens (or Tufted Titmice or Chickadees) so they wouldn’t use the boxes designated for the Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. However, it must be in a less than desirable location, as it has never seen any action.
I refer to this as “unlucky” box #13 because last year a Bluebird couple began feeding their day old chicks (I was So excited to catch that) and the next day all the chicks were gone and a House Wren had taken over the box. The Bluebirds moved to the east end of the property and successfully fledged chicks from box #14 that year. This year, House Wrens have moved in again.
If box #13 is unlucky, box #14 has been lucky this year. First, a Tree Swallow pair fledged a brood and then a Bluebird couple moved in and is tending to their eggs.
In this video the male arrives to the box with a large insect. It could cause one to believe they are feeding chicks. However, he flew over to his mate and fed her the insect (oh my how sweet) then she enters the nest. Based on other behavior, I’m fairly certain they are still setting on eggs.
Another successful box this year. Bluebirds fledged their chicks from this box earlier. Then, I believe the same pair started a new brood which they are incubating. They have six eggs in the nest.
I realized that this box sits a bit too close to a perfect House Wren habitat to do anything but attract that species. Last year Bluebirds checked it out and began building a nest, but the wrens overtook it. There are the remains of a massive tree that was felled by lightening not far from the box. That mound of dried branches is prime real estate for birds that love living in the bramble. This year, there’s evidence of wren ownership right in the entrance hole. The cavity is filled to the brim with twigs. But, as definitive proof, a wren flew from the box as I approached to film it.
This is another Purple Martin gourd that hangs in a medium size tree near the old house. Again, it was placed where the wrens would find it inviting to detract them from the other boxes. In this instance, it worked. Last summer and this year, a House Wren pair is occupying the box. They were very vocal with “scolding’ sounds when I showed up to film it.
This box was evaluated by Tree swallows at the end of April when I observed several birds “practicing” (as I refer to it) landing on and entering the box for a couple of days. They were so preoccupied with their endeavor that they permitted me to remain quite close to them and film.
On 6/2/21 I filmed a House Wren sneaking about the box, including entering it. I also filmed the swallow couple coming and going quite frequently.
On 6/5/21 the House wren had executed a complete take-over. The feather nest and eggs that had once been in the box were replaced with twigs.
This is the sad story of Raggedy Ann’s attempt at a new start, which I described above. Here’s the couple occupying the box on 5/30/21, the first day I noticed they were in the box. The following day, Robert did a quick check and noticed eggs. Next there’s a video from 6/2/21.
June 3, 2021 was the last day I observed the pair at or around the nest box. A couple of days later I opened the box and found only a grass nest. The eggs were gone. We can only assume something like a raccoon or possibly snake entered and stole the eggs.
Box 20 is located on an old utility pole near the barn. Tree swallows successfully fledged a brood earlier this Spring. The photos are from 4/2/21. The white barn roof and side truly illuminate these images I have not observed new activity at box #20 since they fledged their chicks.
Tree swallows also chose to use box # 21, which sits right on the property south side. I often see one of the pair using the overhead utility line as a great look out spot. The photo and video are from 6/7/21 (in the video the parent is removing a poop as he exits the box – a sure sign they are feeding chicks.)
This box is currently occupied by Tree Swallows, too! The video is from 6/10/21. They are feeding chicks.
Box #23 sits on the northwest corner of our property. It’s filled with large twigs. I suspect it may be a secondary / pseudo nest for the wrens in box #24.
This is a REAL weird one. In March and April I found a single dead bird (which I suspect were both Tree Swallows) inside this box. The first one was mangled as if it had been attacked and then died in the box, or something tried to eat it after it died in the box from perhaps the cold weather. The second was more intact, but not in good enough shape that I could be definitive about the species.
On 6/4/21 I opened the box to find a nest containing what I first thought was blue human-made material (like plastic), which there was. But then realized there appeared to be blue feathers; the blue coloring of a male Bluebird. Maybe it was just an artifact of the fuzzy focus. I assumed this meant it may have been a Tree Swallow nest since they are prone to use feathers. I worried that a male Bluebird had been killed by something and the feathers were then used by Tree swallows. But, there were eggs that looked like House wren eggs. I made the evaluation that this was perhaps a nest site displacement / take-over of the swallows by the wrens. On 6/6/21 I returned to get a better photo. What had appeared to be bluebird feathers didn’t look that way as much. But, the presence of feathers of a more natural hue was obvious.
This box is clearly occupied by very vocal House Wrens.
The aforementioned Bluebird, Raggedy Ann, was filmed feeding chicks in early May. A week after these photos were shot, Robert discovered a dead chick hanging out of the opening. This box has not seen any further activity since then. These photos were taken on May 1, 2021.
We put up this box near the barn (which is also near Box # 25) in order to encourage the House Sparrows that nest in the barn to enroll in our Planned Parenthood program. If they put effort into nest building where we can remove it, we can slow their reproductive success. We did have House sparrows enroll, and I even filmed a pair mating atop of the box! Curiously, they were overrun by the House Wrens from Box #25. The photos below show the wrens building a nest inside this box. But, I see the same wrens singing from this box, singing atop box #25. It’s a mere 20 feet away. I’ve read that House Wrens are fiercely territorial. I’m pretty sure this is just a fake nest owned by the birds from #25.
And that concludes today’s activities!
The day after I published this post, I saw Raggedy Ann at nest box #26 with a mate. READ HERE.
After publishing this post, I realized I had not mentioned another cavity nesting species for which we offer nest boxes: our colony of Purple Martins. READ HERE for info on those lovely birds.