Tagged with "Habitat"
To Nest or Not?
I like learning about things that are obvious once I know how to look for them—things that were often common knowledge in the past. In spring, birds are telling stories about where they choose to raise their young, stories based in logic, with a dash of magic. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1) Birds don’t actually live in nests.
Well, I guess it depends on your definition of live. Birds lay eggs and raise their young in nests. But once the kids have flown away, the parents either renest with a new brood that season or abandon the nest for the wild. The nests you are probably imagining right now are most likely found hidden in a dense leafy shrub or in the canopy of a tree, where they provide shelter from weather and camouflage from the sharp eyes of predators. Different birds have different nesting strategies (form, technique, and material).
A simple cup-shape is the most common nest type. You can find them in any number of places, such as along branches in the tree canopy, perched in tree forks, or nestled on ledges.
Birds that Build cup Nests: Northern Cardinal, Barn Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Robin, varieties of warbler, as well as other passerines.
2) Not all birds make nests.
Or, rather, not our idea of a nest. Some birds can get by with just a depression in the ground called a scrape nest. Scrapes are popular nest types for terrestrial birds (birds that prefer grasslands and open habitats that lack trees), such as shorebirds or tundra species.
Birds that Build Scrape Nests: Bob-white Quail, Killdeer, American Avocet, Common Tern, Piping Plovers, and many other shorebirds.
Other birds are cavity nesters which take advantage of holes found in place like dead tree trunks. Some line their place with coziness, but many just lay their eggs in the space as is. There are varieties of Owl that return to the same cavity for many years to raise their young, building up a “nest” from their own poop and their kids’ poop, too. When they’re not raising kids, these Owls roost on a branch near their cavity. You can sometimes spot them by finding their pellets beneath the trees.
Birds that Use Nest Cavities: Carolina Wren and House Wren, Eastern Bluebird, all Woodpeckers, Sapsuckers, Nuthatches, Prothonotary Warblers, Chickadees, and Owls.
There are also platform dwellers (Ospreys and Eagles), mound nesters (Mallard ducks), tunnel makers (Belted Kingfishers, Atlantic Puffins), pendant builders (Baltimore Orioles), and those who chose no nests at all (Chuck-will’s-widow). It all depends on what quality habitats are available where they live.
3) Most birds don’t re-use their nests.
It all comes down to capacity and energy resources. Small birds often make their nests from delicate materials that don’t weather well. While some of them will reuse their nests to raise another brood or two in the same season, they almost always build new ones the following spring. Starting from scratch reduces the possibility of ectoparasites (mites, lice, etc.), which can negatively impact the health and survival of chicks. It also helps avoid predators who know the locations of the nests from last season. Big birds, like Bald Eagles and Ospreys, who can carry large branches and twigs, will return year after year to the same nest, adding to the old one and making it larger over time—unless another bird steals it first.
4) What about Birdhouses?
For cavity nesting birds, birdhouses replace lost habitat, like standing dead trees. So the answer is yes, birdhouses are good. In fact, they have helped restore populations of Eastern Bluebird and Prothonotary Warblers. They are even better when they are cleaned out each spring to reduce the populations of mites and other pests from the previous breeding season which can harm the newborn chicks. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, the birds will only select the ones you do right.
Birds likely to use birdhouses (nesting boxes): Wrens, Bluebirds, Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Owls.
5) What about the way YOU nest?Your garden lifestyle is intricately connected to the life of birds. Think about it from the birds’ perspective and relate it to your place.
- Leave a dead tree or two, for food (insects) and nesting opportunities.
- Plant shrubs in groups. Dense clusters of varying heights provide options and protection.
- Plant natives with lots of fruit.
- Resist the urge to prune shrubs. Instead let them grow into their original natural shapes: tall, short, dense, twiggy.
- Leave a matrix of habitats including places on the ground that you don’t mow or “tidy up.”
- Make habitat piles with fallen twigs.
- And yes! Put out some birdhouses.
6) What to Plant?
Shrubs and small trees that provide great food and nesting areas. Most of these fruits are delicious for you too, but most often than not the birds will get them first. Don’t worry about insects, birds will eat them too. In fact, caterpillars are the primary food for their young. Here are some of my favorite native trees and shrubs:
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
- Chokeberries (Aronia spp)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- American holly (Ilex opaca)
- Shad (Amelanchier canadensis)
Learn about the keystone plants, like oak trees, which support more than 400 species of insects and are vital to bird survival, in your area by visiting The National Wildlife Federation. Here is the list for the Northeast: Eastern Temperate Forests.
With thanks to Chris Gangemi and Matt Jeffery.
To learn more about birds:
American Bird Conservancy
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The National Audubon Society
Types of Bird Nests (The Spruce)
Birds That Build Nests With Domes May Be Doomed (NYT)
Book: Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh is a little handbook of consciousness to guide your relationship with your land. When you see it this way, you just can't use harmful practices.
Quote: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anybody could ever want.” – Andy Warhol
Podcast: For the Wild: TIOKASIN GHOSTHORSE on the Power of Humility. Thought provoking ideas about our relationships to nature and "saving the earth.” Try going outside with these ideas in mind.
American Robin on her nest, photo by wwing from Getty Images Signature.
Closing The Food Loop - Part 1
It’s Fall and here comes the Plant Biomass -- leaves, twigs, tumbling grasses, and the last of the fluffy seedheads. Biomass is all the organic stuff your property makes and, in the PRFCT world, gets to keep…all for itself. Plant biomass provides habitat for insects and adds decomposing matter, which makes healthy soil, which feeds healthy plants, which makes more biomass. That’s the way of the food web loop.
We are all hearing about Leave the Leaves, so while we are figuring out how to do that, why not just do it all, and close the loop: save ALL your biomass? Imagine: No biomass sent to the landfill; no fertilizers, mulch, or compost bought in. Nothing your property makes is treated as garbage. Total harmony, perfect balance, major good for the planet, and for you.
Leaves alone can be a challenge to manage, and they degrade quickly, what about the longer lasting stuff: Twigs, branches, even whole trees; how to find a place for them? ARTFULLY!
Leaves: Chop (when dry!) with a mower and leave as many as possible on the lawn. Next batch can go into planting beds, chopped or not. All the rest – compost. Chopping does damage to insects tucked in for the winter, like Fireflies and Luna Moths, so please do keep that in mind.
Twigs: Make habitat piles as ephemeral art. Wrens and Thrushes especially like having such places to hide from predators and nasty weather.
Every place’s pile has its own personality. The bigger a garden, the more biomass it makes. The more habitat it hosts.
Branches: Get them chipped and use them for garden paths and for smothering difficult weeds.
Get inventive! Every fall, every fallen branch, every invasive shrub cut down, a new opportunity.
Trees: Log piles make great dividers and screens, plus habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. Yes, you really do need snakes, they eat voles.
Stumps: The heart of a Hügel, (the hill in HügelKulture) PRFCT Earth style. Place stumps and funky logs in a shallow hole. Cover with twigs, sod/soil, leaves, compost, whatever needs a place to decompose. Wet it all down well. Plant a cover crop, or finish with an imaginative use of biomass, like more twigs, or leaves. The stump, deep in the center of it all, emanates moisture and feeds the biome. Artful decomposition.
Meadow and Flower Bed Cuttings (late spring): Haystacks! So many wonderful ways to make them– old sticks can get used up inside…also handy for smothering weeds.
Surely you have heard about leaving the leaves by now. So, of course, we want to take you to the next level—leaving pretty much everything. Every seed head of every tree, shrub, grass and flowering plant is a potential food source or shelter for wildlife. Standing (and resting) vegetation protects the soil and all that lives on or in it. There is a lot of life going on that you can help to make it through the winter.
So please don’t mow that meadow, don’t chop plants down and remove them from the garden. Every cut is a wound, and a loss. Why not see it all differently—less work and, in your newly winter watchful eye, a place full of beauty, and life, and wonder.
The PRFCT Relationship
Why not take advantage of this at-home opportunity to get to know your property better -- to work on your relationship? Have you spent quality time with your place, looking and listening? Learning from it. Do you understand and embrace its needs? How do you decide what is best for it? All on your terms?
Go outside and take a good look at every square foot of your place, without judgement. What is going on? What is doing just fine, and what needs you? Appreciate all that is beautiful that happened all on its own.
You and your land have been living together; is it time you took a vow to be true to it? No cheating. A relationship based on mutual input, not domination.
What does that mean? This year’s PRFCT Tips will be your guide.
Step One: Review all the maintenance and fertilizer/pesticide treatments you or your professionals have been applying to your property. What are they? Why are they needed?
Check out their health and environmental effects here: https://www.beyondpesticides.org/resources/pesticide-gateway
Or email us with questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
Go back outside. Is your property bursting, buzzing and chirping with life? Treasure it. Make that vow: I will do this place no harm. Practice.
The Ten Commitments
If the dire news of the climate crisis is making you feel overwhelmed, why not make some promises to a piece of earth. If everyone made their property, or one they frequent, into a natural refuge, there would be much less to worry about.Here are some of our promises…send us one of yours.
1. I will think of my place as my friend, my family. I will work with, not against it, and do it no harm. It will be a sanctuary.
2. I will let this place keep all that it produces: no biomass will leave the property.
3. I will make a compost pile, even if I probably won’t turn it.
4. I will carefully consider everything I bring here—can it be used for a long time, can it be composted or repurposed, does it really need to be plastic?
5. I will use no toxic synthetic chemicals.
6. I will take a moment to learn about an insect before I decide if I really need to kill it.
7. I will plant native plants to provide habitat for insects and birds.
8. I will get to know the names of all the plants, animals and insects that live in this place, or at least the big ones.
9. I will reduce the size of my lawn to just what gets used.
10. I will let go a bit, let nature be my collaborator, and help me keep my promises.