Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Bird in the Hand: Love is in the Air (part 2)

by MIKE TURNLUND Contributing Writer
| April 28, 2021 1:00 AM

For the avid birder, spring is a very special time of the year. Not only do our summer residents begin to arrive, adding variety to our birding opportunities, but they come with one thing in mind: making a family. You know, things like nests, eggs, and babies so ugly that they’re cute?

At least for what are called altricial young. These are baby birds that are born half naked and blind and are utterly dependent upon their parents for food. In contrast, precocial baby birds, like chicks and ducklings, hit the ground running and are able to feed themselves from day one. Our songbird families bear the first type. Little monstrosities!

But before nests and babies, there must be a pairing off between the future moms and dads, which often involves a courtship, usually initiated by the male. If you live in any of the towns of Bonner County, keep an eye out for the Eurasian Collared-dove. Or should I say an ‘ear out,’ as the males courting call is an alarming screech. It can actually catch you by surprise! What the heck… While the males have an endearing and soothing three-syllable coo song, they often approach the female with a striking and unattractive reeetch call, followed by a lot of flapping around, with wings spread and tails flared. These feathered folks are quite brazen in their courting and conduct their business on housetops, treetops, and other exposed places. A great opportunity to finally answer that awkward question all parents dread, “mommy, where do baby birds come from?”

The Red-breasted nuthatch male also has a little shimmy and dance routine that he’ll use to break down the defenses of love before a female, even feeding her treats. But these little birds are a bit more discreet and it’s a rare thing to actually see the male courting the female. But you’ll hear his song, which has been aptly described as sounding like a toy tin horn --- reet, reet, reet. And unlike most other passerine species, nuthatches mate for life. Still, a little romance in the springtime keeps the relationship fresh. Very romantic. Maybe we need to replace images of Cupid with nuthatches on those Valentine’s Day cards?

The swallows will be suddenly showing up – six different species in our area. The ones we’re primarily interested in are the Tree swallow and the Violet-green swallow, as both of these species take readily to backyard nest boxes. When nest building, the birds will swoop near the ground, picking up strands of dog hair, old feathers, pieces of string, and other such soft material to line their nests. Some folks will scatter small pieces of brightly-colored yarn on their lawns to provide the swallows with such material and the birds will gladly take them! A great way to recycle those ends and pieces gathered up by busy knitters.

Speaking of which, I once spotted an old Bullock’s oriole nest hanging from a cottonwood limb that was partly made with blue baling twine! That is proof that birds know how to recycle. Yes, we have orioles in our county, but you’ll have to look for them. If you’re determined, you might see them in the tall cottonwoods that follow Chuck Slough on the south end of Travers Park in Sandpoint. Their nests look like old athletic socks suspended from a branch. You’ll need binoculars.

It becomes apparent that the robins are in the final stages of nest building when you see the females visiting muddy puddles after a rain shower. The female finishes her open nest with a lining of mud, smoothing it to resemble a clay bowl. The bird uses her upper body to press against the mud to make it perfectly circular. Consequently, on occasion you will see a female robin with dirty breast feathers. Now you know why!

By the way, the American robin does not use nest boxes, but will accept a nest platform. They’re simple to make (and readily available to buy), but placement is important. Experiment around and you might get lucky, especially if you have some shady areas near some trees.

Let’s not forget the water birds. The Canada geese are prolific breeders and are a very adaptable species. While many, if not most, nest on the ground near waterways, some will use specially built nesting platforms that are a couple feet above the ground. Others have been observed locally to use nesting platforms set up for osprey – yes, all of 40 feet in the air! But the geese have worked out the physics involved, and their little goslings can actually jump safely to the earth below. Boing!

Wood ducks, which are common in our area, utilize old woodpecker nest cavities to raise their broods. And, yes, these ducklings also take a first big step to get to the ground below, just flinging themselves into the great blue – landing with a bounce. Again, physics is on their side. I’d explain the numbers, but…you know…math is hard!

Lastly, and favorite of all, is the courtship ritual of the Western grebe, which I have had the joy of observing more than once. The male initiates courtship by giving a prospective female a token gift of water weed. If she accepts it, they then exchange mirrored movements of the head and beak, deliberate movements to the left and right. For example, the male moves his head and beak to the left, the female mirrors his movement to her right. He then reverses the movement to his right, which she again mirrors with a movement to her left. They’ll do this for a while before suddenly dashing off together, side by side, wings back, beaks pointed in the air, running across the surface of the water, before both diving simultaneously under the surface. This courtship is both elegant and beautiful and should not be missed. Two potential viewing sites are Ellisport Bay near East Hope and the southern end of Denton Slough. Worth the effort!

Love is in the air! You just have to look around you. It’s a fair wager to bet that every single bird you encounter this spring has one thing in mind: perpetuating the species. And if you patiently watch and listen carefully, you’ll discover many new things about these wonderful feathered critters.

Happy birding!

By the way, my goal this summer is to add the Yellow-breasted chat to my life list. Everyone seems to see them, but me! So, if you have one visiting your neighborhood, drop me an email. Fame awaits you …

Questions? Comments? Mike can be contacted at mturnlund@gmail.com