Column: Nesting is tough duty

Published 2:47 pm Thursday, June 1, 2006

By Staff
In the fairytale world of nature that most of us envision momma bird sitting on a cozy nest is a symbol of all things good – peace, tranquility, motherhood, the whole works. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth. In my younger years, I never gave much thought to the trials and tribulations of nesting. After sufficient ageing, though, I slowed down enough to become more thoughtful and observant and began to notice the hard realities of procreating. Nesting is mighty tough duty.
At our old place in town, doves had favorite nest sites that they used year after year. One was on a low limb of a dwarf catalpa tree outside our back door. Another was on a spruce limb near our upstairs bedroom window. Seeing poor mom during a cold, driving rain, hunkered on the nest with feathers all soggy, matted and bedraggled you knew she was not feeling peaceful and tranquil. It also gets a lot worse than that.
After our recent move to the country. I began thinking about getting into the landlord business. I would provide housing for tree swallows, blue birds, flycatchers and phoebes with the rental agreement that they would provide bug control services. I was also considering putting up some bat houses and working out the same deal for the night shift but that's another story.
I'd never been involved with bird housing. My sole experience was making a wren house for a cub scout badge, so I was a real rookie in the landlord business. At the site where we built our house there were several bluebird boxes my dad had erected years ago. The books said these would suffice for both bluebirds and tree swallows. Great! A little renovation and I was set up for business. Sure enough, before long a pair of bluebirds signed the rental agreement and moved in. A pair of tree swallows moved into another box and a pair of phoebes started nest construction under the eaves of the log cabin next to the house. The business looked promising.
Every so often I couldn't resist taking a quick peak into the bluebird house to see how that work crew was coming. The cluster of tiny blue eggs soon transformed into a blob of gray down and gaping beaks. A while later the down pile had grown into a sizeable mass. Not long and that crew will be ready for work. Then a few days later the unthinkable happened. The parents disappeared and the nest was empty. Hmm … raccoon? Snake? I'd heard about such disasters but hadn't gotten around to installing a predator guard on the pole. Then I noticed some movement in the nest. I pulled the nest out to find a seething mass of ants. Surely the ants had killed the kids. What a horrible way to go. Probably ma threw out the body as each succumbed and nature's janitors took over from there to dispose of it. The tree swallows in the other box were in the egg laying phase. I hurried to check that box for ants. The eggs were all gone. I hadn't gotten around to installing a predator guard there, either, and a racoon or something must have made an omelet.
Then a few days later there was an alarming pile of grayish brown, suspiciously phoebe-like feathers on the cabin porch floor. There were also several suspiciously egg-like, splattered stains near the feathers. I checked the phoebe nest above and it was completely empty. Perhaps a red squirrel? Maybe a blue jay or starling? Whatever the culprit, mom made the ultimate sacrifice in vain. That's just what I've seen in my little world; bad guys 3, parents 0. Out in the real world cow birds parasitize oriole, warbler and other nests; racoons, possums, skunks, foxes and coyotes destroy as much as 80 percent of waterfowl nests and kill many adults, while extreme spring rain and cold can nearly wipe out all ground based nests. It sometimes makes you wonder how there's any birds left. Carpe diem.