Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Spring Brings Back the Nesting Birds
April 04, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Spring continues to struggle on its way to us. But the days are getting longer, the sun feels warmer when it is out, and small numbers of spring migrants have found their way back to the Newburyport area. A few piping plovers have made it to beaches on Plum Island and great egrets are coming back to the marshes. Ospreys have already been seen carrying sticks to build their nests. A blue-winged teal and a dozen wood duck were seen in the Artichoke River just north of Route 113 on the West Newbury line.

     Kestrels are just starting to migrate through, and red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds and grackles are back in large flocks. Tree swallows are being spotted, and robins and phoebes are returning. 

     Speaking of robins and phoebes, now would be a good time to put up a nesting shelf for these species. Though robins normally build a nest in trees, they sometimes nest under decks and on top of light fixtures on a house. They will sometimes nest on a nesting shelf, which had an open side for easy access in and out. Eastern phoebes will also take to a nesting shelf as they often nest under eaves of a shed or garage. Phoebes begin nesting in April and they often return to the same place each following year and build a new nest right on top of the old one.

     Last week, I talked mainly about putting up bird houses for tree swallows and bluebirds, but there are many other birds that will use a nesting box. Any bird that normally nests in a tree cavity is a candidate for a bird house. These include the woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied and flickers), as well as chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch, Carolina and house wrens and house finches. Of course house sparrows and starlings take over many bird houses. Purple martins nest in colonies and will take to multiple cavity houses and gourds. Also a few other birds, including great crested flycatchers, kestrels, screech, saw-whet, and barred owls, and wood ducks, will occupy larger nest boxes.

     Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches will fit in a house with a 1 1/8-1 1/4” hole, but they, too, might occupy a larger entrance house meant for a bluebird or tree swallow. The smaller downy woodpecker can also use that size house. The hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers need a larger house with a larger entrance hole and the flicker needs larger accommodations still.

     The declining kestrel population in our area is a good reason to put up a kestrel box if you have the right open habitat for one. Screech owls use the same size box so they, too, might nest on your property. I have known of homes in Rowley and Boxford that have each had a red morph and a gray morph screech owl occupying separate owl boxes in their yards. If you have a pond or other wetland, wood ducks will also use a nest box designed for them.

     Purple martins are at the northeastern edge of their range and are mostly coastal in our area. They colony houses are large, need to be put up twelve to fifteen feet high in open areas, and require much more maintenance than most bird houses. House sparrows and starling are a constant threat, so accessibility to the house is important to be able to control these pest birds from taking over. So a ladder is necessary or a means to lower and raise the house is required to check on the nests and to remove the unwanted intruders. Tree swallow houses are much easier to deal with. They only need to be five to six feet high and you can put multiple houses in close proximity to attract more swallows. Since they are of the same family as purple martins, they too will eat large numbers of flying insects.

     There have been reports of Carolina wrens starting to build nests already and they will nest in many different odd places. They have been known to nest in mail boxes, in hanging plants, in clothes pin bags, in flower pots in garages, and under upside down kayaks and canoes that have been stored for the winter. Carolina wrens can also be coaxed nest in a bird house as can house finches, which are also known to nest in live hanging plants. 

     The smaller house wren will arrive in May and the males will begin filling houses with sticks only to let the female chose which house she prefers. They will take readily to a hanging house, and their entrance hole need only be about an inch in diameter. Such a small size hole will exclude most other birds, and it doesn’t stop the house wren from taking over houses with larger entrances that were meant for bluebirds or chickadees. House wrens can be aggressive in their own right by tapping holes into the eggs that other birds leave in a bird house.

     Depending on the habitat that you have, there are many opportunities for attracting birds with bird houses. You can wait until all the snow melts in your yard, but some birds may not wait until the snow melts to find an appropriate nesting box.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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