Blue Ridge Naturalist: Some Very Unnatural Bird Behavior This Year

Given a choice between nesting in a box or an open area, Carolina Wrens usually choose an open area, such as this shelf on the author’s porch. Such a preference makes sense because these wrens make a domed nest that already includes a protective “roof.” Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Many species of birds have behaved very strangely this year in my yard.  Of course, the weather has been atypical (we hardly had a winter), which could certainly have an effect upon wildlife behavior. Still, the reason for the abundance of unusual but fascinating occurrences that I have witnessed thus far in 2017 remains a mystery.

On March 4, as my husband and I returned from an early morning walk, we heard a Wood Duck call from the forest about halfway down our driveway. We had never before seen a Wood Duck in our woods, but we quickly spotted a female and a male perched fairly near my newest box for Eastern Screech Owls. As we watched, the female duck flew to the box and went inside!

By March 23, the ducks were using the box for their nest, which was truly remarkable. While it is common for them to use screech owl boxes, they typically nest inside of boxes deliberately placed for their use near or within a body of water.  Despite the name, Wood Duck parents need to raise their family in water.

My box, on the other hand, was about a quarter of a mile as the crow (duck?) flies to the nearby river—quite a long trek for newly hatched ducklings to make. They cannot fly and must run on the ground to follow their mother. Why would the parents decide to nest in this box when there are plenty of dead trees with cavities along the river that they surely could have used instead? It is very puzzling.

While the choice of nesting location made by this pair is really quite surprising, I see it as proof positive that wildlife can recognize where the welcome mat is out for them. I cannot help but wonder if the ducks chose to nest here because they sensed that our yard must be a safe haven.

After all, every day the ducks could hear a large variety of birds chattering and singing, and they could see that Gray Squirrels and Eastern Cottontail Rabbits “hung out” in the driveway below their box. If such an abundance of critters had already chosen to reside in The Nature-friendly Garden, then why shouldn’t the Wood Ducks also start their family here?

Although a pair of screech owls had chosen to nest last year in the box claimed by the Wood Ducks, they had four other boxes around my yard that they could still choose from. However, even though I normally know just what is going on with these little owls (I have been documenting their behavior in my yard for a long time), they did not follow the usual script this year.

We typically hear screech owl vocalizations (via microphones I have outside the house) almost every evening from late winter to mid-spring, depending upon when the owls start to nest. But this year, for the first time since setting up my microphones more than two decades ago, we heard screech owls so rarely that we wondered if they were even around.

They apparently engaged in a rather unconventionally silent courtship as nesting season approached. Yet by March 10, we were indeed hosting two screech owls (each in separate but nearby boxes), which indicated a pair was interested in nesting here—and they did.

Perhaps even stranger is that throughout the incubation period and then feeding of the owlets, we never heard the titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and wrens complaining about the owls, as they normally do. In fact, their vocalizing is often what alerts me to the presence of an owl in one of my boxes. Why had none of these birds ever made a fuss as they usually do?

I have no idea why neither the screech owls nor the songbirds ever vocalized much this year, but I do know that the Great Horned Owls had hardly vocalized either!  These big owls typically start hooting quite a bit by December because they nest early—usually by February in this area. But we hardly heard them until that month rolled around, and even then we did not hear them much at all. Why were all of these birds so quiet this year?

Another perplexing bird situation occurred in April when a pair of Tree Swallows decided to nest in my yard. Just as is the case for the Wood Ducks, my yard is hardly the best Tree Swallow habitat.

You usually spot these birds nesting in a box placed within a field, often one with some type of body of water nearby. Because they feed mostly upon flying insects, Tree Swallows can more easily fly around in an open area to catch them. In fact, Tree Swallows very much resemble bats as they swoop and glide over the ground.

However, my yard is not particularly open, as a field is, because it consists of huge numbers of flowers, shrubs, and small trees with paths separating the garden beds.  Additionally, mature forest surrounds it.

So, why did the swallows nest here? Were these birds desperate? They certainly could have found plenty of natural cavities in the woods around my house or even in the local area.

Amazingly, yet another mated pair of birds—Eastern Phoebes—behaved as if determined to nest in my yard in spite of a less-than-ideal situation. The two decided to nest on a shelf on my porch that was only four feet from where a Carolina Wren female was already incubating her eggs.

While the wren was on eggs, there was not much of a problem. But once the eggs hatched and the two parent wrens had chicks to feed, they did not want the female phoebe around! The male wren would chase both phoebes away (the male phoebe stays close by to keep an eye on his mate and their eggs) and he would keep them away until his mate had fed their chicks.

So many altercations took place that I worried the female phoebe would abandon her nest and eggs. But she persisted and the story ended well. The five wren chicks fledged and the wren family moved away, leaving the female phoebe to incubate her eggs in peace. The eggs hatched, producing four chicks that she raised with help from her mate.

Although I have told you only about some of the nesting birds around my house, I have also observed unusual behavior this year by many other kinds of animals as well. If you noticed any odd wildlife behavior this year, I would love to hear about it. You can contact me at [email protected]

© Marlene A. Condon


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