Have you noticed it has been a little noisy outside lately? No, I don’t mean from your neighbor blowing the Live Oak leaves off his driveway. From the moment it begins to brighten in the morning until the sun sets the birds are singing and loudly calling to one another. What you are hearing are mostly male birds attempting to attract a mate and claim their territory. This is also an announcement that pretty soon we will have a new crop of baby birds on our island.
Let the nesting begin!
Not all songbirds nest at the same time or in the same type of nest.
“Resident” birds are birds that live in the same area year-round. Nests found early in the spring tend to belong to non-migratory birds. Some of our “resident” birds are the Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, and House Finch. These birds might begin nesting as early as the beginning of March. Examples of birds that migrate to our area and nest later are the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Parula, Summer Tanager, Painted Bunting, and Great-crested Flycatcher.
Nest building is sometimes, but not always, a joint effort as it is with the Carolina Wren. Typically the female does most if not all of the construction with very little help from the male. Nest building can take anywhere from two days to two weeks depending on if birds are working on the nest together and if there is excavating involved.
Nest materials vary by species. Nests may be beautifully constructed of moss and grasses lined with hair and feathers like that of a Carolina Chickadee or a bulky mass of twigs and leaves like that of the Carolina Wren. Nest construction is not random. Materials used and nest types and shapes are very specific to the bird species. Some birds may even weave in snake skin or spider silk. Our tiniest nesting bird, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, uses spider silk to hold her tiny nest together. So leaving the spider webs in your yard may be encouraging Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to nest close by.
Location of the nests are specific to the species as well. As many of you know, a Carolina Wren will nest almost anywhere. You might have fought the battle of removing a wren’s nesting materials from a hanging basket of flowers. Or, maybe you’ve had to wait to fire up your grill until the baby wrens have fledged the nest that is under the grill’s cover? Some of the small warblers build their nests high in Spanish moss hanging from the trees and the Northern Mockingbird and Brown Thrasher build nests deep in low shrubs. Many birds are cavity dwellers like woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, and Eastern Bluebirds. These birds might excavate their own cavity while others look for already established cavities. Birdhouses were not always available for nesting, but obviously birds have adapted nicely to these lush accommodations. Oh, and keep an eye on your paper box. That is prime real estate for the cavity nesters.
Finally, there is the bird who doesn’t bother to build a nest at all. The Brown-headed Cowbird will lay her egg in another bird’s nest and leave it for that unsuspecting host to incubate and raise. Sadly, if a smaller parent bird is trying to feed her chicks, the larger cowbird chick will get most of the food, perhaps leaving some of the smaller chicks to die from starvation.
Incubation time for time for those beautiful little eggs of songbirds are similar, but who does the incubating?
One to two days after the nest is built, the songbird will lay her eggs. Most birds will lay one egg per day, but different species of birds lay different numbers of eggs. A clutch is the number of eggs laid in a single nesting session that are incubated together. The clutch size of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is 1 – 3 eggs. For the overachieving Carolina Chickadee the clutch size is 3 – 10 eggs. The Eastern Bluebird will have 2 -7, and the Mourning Dove only lays 2 eggs.
The parent bird will not start to incubate the eggs until they are all laid. The female is the only incubator for most songbirds, but the male is often not without duties. He might feed the female or stand watch from a nearby perch. He might also be very active in feeding the babies once they hatch.
The length of incubation also varies, but generally coincides with the size of the bird. The eggs of a larger bird, like the Blue Jay, will take a bit longer for incubation than a small bird. Generally speaking, though, most of of our backyard songbirds will take around two weeks to incubate their young.
Once hatched, baby birds have names for the different stages of their life before becoming independent of their parents.
Hatchling: This is a baby bird that has very recently hatched (hence the name). It is, at most, a few days old and completely dependent on a parent for food and care. The hatchling hasn’t yet opened its eyes and is bald and pink except for a few downy wisps.
Nestling: This is a baby bird that is still in the nest and is usually between the age of 3 and 13 days. It is a tiny bit more capable of taking care of itself than a hatchling, but is still very dependent on its parent for survival. The nestling has opened its eyes and has a few feathers, but still has naked spots with pin feathers coming in.
Fledgling: This is a baby bird that is ready to leave the nest. It can hop, flutter, and walk with little problem. When the baby bird leaves it will stay close by to its family for a few days as it practices flying and foraging for food. The parent might continue to feed the chick and intervene if there is a threat to its baby. The fledgling has most of its adult feathers, but they may be a little stubby on the tail and wings and a bit dull in color.
Once the young birds have left the nest, you might still see the parent feeding the fledgling. If you have feeders watch for two birds of the same species feeding together. The fledgling will flutter its wings and open its mouth and the parent will feed it a bit of suet or a seed. The fledgling is naturally the bird being fed, but to visually distinguish between the parent and the baby, note the fledgling’s bill. It will often look larger and more brightly colored than the adult’s. Also, as with any youth, it will have a bit of a rumpled look.
The end of spring doesn’t necessarily mean the end of nesting season as some songbirds, like the Eastern Bluebird, might raise more than one brood per season.
So start listening for the plaintive begging calls of our new crop of baby songbirds. You will know that the parent has arrived with a morsel when the cries get louder and even a little frantic. It’s a beautiful thing to hear.
If you want more detailed information about nesting and details about specific birds, check out nestwatch.org. Also, to find out what to do if you see a baby bird out of its nest, read the SIB blog post called To Rescue or Not To Rescue Baby Birds.