Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Bird Nests in Your Backyard March 3, 2011

Today it is 33 degrees outside. Tomorrow it will be 41. Saturday, 52.  There is a lot of rain in the forecast, but on March 12th a “full day of sunshine” is proposed. Do you know what this means, readers?  In the northeast United States, spring is coming.

As you may have guessed from my recent posts, I will be very happy to see winter go. In the mean time, though, I have noticed a surprising benefit to the leaves being off the trees.

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Bird nests! If you keep an eye out, you can see them easily right now through the branches of trees, without the dark foliage to camouflage them. I sometimes see them in my neighborhood, nestled against the bare bark. I also sometimes see bird and squirrel nests in the trees while I am driving. I usually am not able to stop to take pictures, but I enjoy seeing them and getting a glimpse of how animals are living and raising their young.

Last year, when this blog was still a baby, I discovered a pair of mourning doves nesting on my balcony. They eventually laid eggs and hatched a squab. I really loved having them there and was sad to see them go.  Last May I also had the opportunity to see a killdeer nest and have a reader submit video of bluebird and wren babies living in his backyard. All of this means I am very excited to have the chance to look at some bird nests up close before all of the leaves grow back and birds take up residence again.

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The change in season also means that birds are going to start building new nests soon. Gathering material to build nests is a lot of work, so some people put out “nest material holders,” for birds to visit and borrow from.  You can buy professional versions of these, or you can make your own. Here is a crafted nest material holder shaped like a little house, and here is one made from a mesh onion bag.

One of the professional sellers also has a lot of great information about how to make your own and what materials to use. I am going to copy and paste some of that info here, but please know that I got the info from another website: http://www.bird-house-bath.com/nesting-materials.html

 

“You can put out centralized stashes of nest material. It can be natural materials like straw, small sticks, and twigs, or man made items such as yarn and string. Always use natural colored, un-dyed man made items. Try putting out any combination of the following:
– Thin twigs
– Dog and cat hair – If you have dogs or cats, and we do, you know what a cakewalk this one is. Simply brush pet and pull insane volumes of hair from the brush. Later, you can be enormously amused that the cute little bird babies outside were raised in a nest from your pet hair – as your pet glares out the window.
– Human hair – from your hairbrush
– Thin strips of cloth – cut about an 1 wide and 4-6 inches long
– Feathers – old down or feather pillows are a resource for this
– Long dried grasses
– Yarn or thread or string cut into 4-6 inch lengths
– Pieces of cotton, fluff. We actually purchased an inexpensive cotton filled throw pillow on clearance for this and had enough nesting materials to share with all our (equally strange as ourselves) birding friends for several seasons. Next time, it’s a smaller pillow!
– Long wilted leaves from daffodils, tulips or iris
– Small strips of cellophane – cut thinly and 4-6 inches long
– Spanish moss
– Regular moss – Once a season we pick some moss while on walks and lay it out to dry for a few days, them add to our nesting materials supplies.
– Pine needles – plenty of that to go around in most places.
– Milkweed silk – this one is favorite of several species of birds and worth collecting a few pods if you can. American goldfinch and orioles use ot often.
– Horse hair – Do you ride or know anyone that does? Horse hair from manes and tails is great stuff and very strong!

Items we do not use:
– Dryer lint. While there are several opinions about this, we tend to stay away from anything that may harm the birds. If you get dryer lint wet, when it dries it is hard and crumbles apart. Also, it is unclear if dryer sheets or other chemicals used when washing clothing is harmful for birds so we choose to not go there and give them items we are positive will not hurt them. Laundry detergent or fabric softener residue just does not sound good to us. Maybe it will not hurt them is not enough for us to test.
– Plastic sacks such as grocery bags – We have seen these suggested and think it is a very bad idea. Who has not seen a plastic sack after it has gotten wet and then dried up? Maybe you set on a damp spot at one time. They get hard and brittle and the logo dye cracks of them in flakes.”

This website recommends putting these materials out now (early March) to get birds started. I also want to echo what they said about using plastic–I have read that many birds are running into trouble by using plastic fibers in their nests that don’t insulate the way natural materials do. As a result, the eggs don’t stay warm enough and do not hatch. For this reason do not use anything plastic, and the more natural materials you can provide, the better!

I want to end this post by linking to some really amazing bird nest videos from the always lovely Sir David Attenborough. These should get you inspired for the upcoming nesting season!

First, here are some very clever ways that birds camouflage their nests. If you like to craft/sew/make things you should especially watch this! It is astounding to me that birds can do such delicate work with only their beaks!!

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Next we have one of my favorite examples, the Australian bowerbird. In addition to building a large covered structure, this bird collects and organizes found objects into pleasing arrangements to attract a mate. Some birds only collect blue items, others have a variety of colors. It is a lot of fun to watch the birds placing everything just so, and examining with a critical eye.

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Finally, here is a type of nest I had never seen before looking up the previous videos. It is a giant “apartment complex” of straw that houses hundreds of birds. Keep watching until the end so you can see their little heads poking out!

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I also want to give a shout out to one of my favorite nature blogs, www.goexplorenature.blogspot.com. The author recently said on Facebook that she is building a nest with her sons out of materials they find on neighborhood walks. She is going to be posting about it soon (I believe tomorrow, Friday), and I encourage you all to check it out!

So what about you, dear readers? Have you noticed any bird nests around? Have you seen any birds building yet around your yard? Do you ever put out building materials for them? What other signs of seasonal change are you noticing and looking forward to?  What do you hope the next season will bring?

 

 

 

Sir David Attenborough Laments June 2, 2010

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I recently found this article about Sir David Attenborough, who I mentioned before in the post about the lyre bird, through the Children and Nature Network‘s twitter account.

Sir David Attenborough is an amazing naturalist/personal hero who has spent decades as an environmental history broadcaster, sharing the wonder of nature with people of all ages.  In the article, he describes his childhood “fossicking”–a word I’ve never heard before but greatly enjoy meaning “searching”–through the english countryside.  He feels sorry for children today because parents are afraid to let them go off exploring, and as a result people are becoming more and more disconnected from the environment.

He says, “Kids of ten or twelve are not encouraged to get on their bikes and go fossicking around the countryside where their mothers do not know where they are,” he said. “That was not the case for me. I was able to get on my bike and sit in the fields of Leicestershire watching animals. I learned a lot about natural history.”

I think he has a valid point, but I also think there is another solution. My brother and I spent a lot of time exploring within the relative safety of our backyard and a strip of woods behind our house. We also explored destinations farther from home, but with one difference–our parents were with us! This brings us to one of the biggest questions I personally have about environmental education–how do you inspire parents to take their kids outside??

It is something I’m working on, and I’d certainly love to hear any thoughts you readers have about it. The problem with Sir Attenborough’s idea is that it may be hard to convince parents that letting their kids wander off without knowing where they are is a good plan, whether or not he is right. The best solution, therefore, is to get more parents to go out exploring with their kids, the way mine did with me growing up.

I think one of the things people forget about kids is that they don’t need a big space in order to connect with nature in an important and long-lasting way. Maybe this is why parents don’t feel up to taking their kids out–they imagine it as a big ordeal, searching extensively for something to hold interest.  This does not have to be the case, if children are instructed to look for the small things living all around them! I posted some pictures of students’ finds from previous excursions before, and the students found even more on a second day out. For this day I had the students explore a small area. Not only that, but I had 5 different groups explore the same area throughout the day, and each group found new and different things that the students before them had missed.

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Here is a large slimey salamander the third class to come through found.

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And here is a giant grub of some kind that the last group found. They also found more of the large black, red, and yellow millipedes, worms, ants, salamanders, and toads that the previous post mentions.

There is plenty to find out there lurking under leaves, logs, or the first view inches of top soil, and you don’t need much space to find them!

Sir David Attenborough also brings up another point that is something I haven’t talked about yet on this blog, but struggle with a lot as an environmental educator. Attenborough dislikes the laws that prohibit children from collecting fossils and flowers, and feels that they should be relaxed to allow them to take common species. With kids the mantra is always, “take only pictures, leave only footprints.”  Obviously I don’t want kids to destroy habitat or hurt animals, but I have to say that I agree with David here. When I work with students I still stick by the ‘leave only footprints,’ rule, but the truth is that my childhood experiences with nature looked nothing like that! We loved animals, and thus didn’t want to hurt them, but we caught plenty of snakes, turtles, frogs, and insects, and picked plenty of flowers. The problem I have with telling kids not to do these things is that I am not sure I would feel the connection to and love for nature that I have today if not for these hands-on experiences. It is something I am still going back and forth on–I understand that you can’t tell large groups of kids that messing with nature is okay (which is why I currently don’t!), but I do think that having this as an unbendable unbreakable rule might be a mistake that we will regret in the future.

I wish more studies were being done on this so there was a more concrete way of knowing–what is the difference in connection to nature 30 years from now for a kid who looked at a toad from afar, versus one who scrambled after it through the underbrush, felt its rough skin, its heart beating, and its webbed feet pushing against their hands before releasing it back into the wild? Is there a difference? How important is it? Does one care more about the environment as an adult than the other?

Again, this is something that I’m still struggling with. For the record, I think that everything should be returned to the wild, but I am not sure that telling kids to only watch from a respectful distance is the best plan for instilling a love of nature in our children.  What are your thoughts, readers?

Finally, I just wanted to add this quote from the article about Sir David Attenborough:

“He urged people to go “on safari” in their backyard by using the techniques learned in nature programmes to watch wildlife.”   [emphasis added]

Thanks for the unofficial and accidental shout-out, Telegraph UK!

As I mentioned, I would really love to hear your thoughts on this. Leave a comment here or e-mail me at askbackyardsafari@gmail.com, and let me know what you think!