Chipping sparrows sail in to perch regularly on the uppermost twig of one in a clump of native eastern red cedars, always a little caterpillar or bug dangling from their beaks. Then they drop down about a foot and duck inside the dense fern-like needles.
And that tells the story. They’re feeding babies in their preferred nesting habitat. Chippers often choose evergreens, usually three to 10 feet up, for nesting. She builds the nest, a really flimsy affair of rootlets and fine grasses lined with fine plant fibers.
Meanwhile, he guards her and the territory against other chippers, allowing other species space as long as they don’t intrude on their nest. In spite of her somewhat skimpy nest construction, she will produce two to seven eggs, brood them for about two weeks, and then the pair will poke all those little green caterpillars and small insects down hungry mouths for nearly another two weeks.
So it is with almost all nesting birds. Carolina wrens already fledged two broods. House wrens diligently tend second nests. Brown thrashers fledged last week. Some bluebirds near fledgling second broods. Scarcity of female cardinals in the yard tells us they’re incubating. Most woodpeckers fledged their broods. Nuthatches brought their pale youngsters to the yard two weeks ago. Robins now mud together new nests for brood two. Chickadees and titmice raise only a single brood, their babies already out and about.
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So unless they had nest failure and are making another try, they’re finished for the season.
Every species, however, has its own nesting requirements, both in terms of site and construction materials. Some require secure cavities of a specific size, like woodpeckers, bluebirds, house wrens, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. Some need mud for glue, like barn swallows and robins. No chickadee builds a nest without a cushion of moss.
Every blue-gray gnatcatcher camouflages its nest with a coating of lichens, glued in place with saliva. Dandelion fluff and spider web make up key ingredients for the hummingbird’s open-cup nest. And every nest requires protection, vegetation that both conceals and cools.
In short, a yard without appropriate nest sites, shelter, and available construction materials will have no nesting birds.
But an even bigger demand for nesting birds should be obvious: food for the babies. That chipping sparrow nesting in our cedar eats seeds. Most sparrows eat seeds. So do finches. So do cardinals. So do chickadees and titmice. But they don’t feed their babies seed. They feed their babies bugs, especially in caterpillar form.
Recent research reports that a single family of chickadees needs 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise a brood. The same research found that a yard with less than 70 percent native plants (measured by biomass) will not produce enough food for even a single family of chickadees. Why? Because native plants support the native bugs that feed our native birds – especially their babies.
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North America has lost three billion birds in the last 30 years – one quarter of our avian population. We’ve also lost 40 percent of our insects, primarily because of insecticidal use.
How to help? No matter the size of your lot or your apartment or condo patio or balcony, plant natives – in the ground or in pots – to support birds’ food sources. Every bit helps!
For more information about birds and bird habitat, see Sharon Sorenson’s books How Birds Behave, Birds in the Yard Month by Month, and Planting Native to Attract Birds to Your Yard. Check her website at birdsintheyard.com, follow daily bird activity on Facebook at SharonSorensonBirdLady, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.