10 fun ways you can observe birds this breeding season
Published: February 15, 2011
|Birdwatching is always exciting, but sometimes it can feel like a race: We see more and more species but less and less of each bird. |
Every so often, we should reverse that pattern by actually watching birds. The breeding season is a great time for doing this. Intriguing behaviors abound. Let me share 10 ideas.
1 Watch for displays. Courtship can be as exciting for birdwatchers as it is for birds. Start by listening to singing male songbirds, especially those that seem to be staying in one area. Watch to see if females join them, then look for interactions that suggest the birds are paired.
Females typically show their willingness to mate by crouching — lowering their body, head, and wings. If the courting male sees her posture, he will mount her quickly and ever so briefly as they manipulate their tails to permit sperm transfer.
2 Listen for duetting. If cardinals, Baltimore or Bullock’s Orioles, or Rose-breasted or Black-headed Grosbeaks are singing and females are around, be alert for duetting. Watch the bill of a male to see if the song continues after he stops singing. This means a female is responding. Notice that no gaps will be apparent between their singing bouts. Then ask yourself how the female knows when to begin and, later, when the male knows when to come back in. They will seem to sing one long, seamless song.
3 Provide nesting material. Place string or yarn in a visible container like a pie plate. If orioles are nesting locally, they might come to your yarn stash for building supplies. Use camouflage colors. You can do the same with feathers if swallows are nearby, as they like to line their nests with them.
4 Build a platform. It’s great to be able to see a nest, of almost any species. It will provide fun all summer. If you have access to a shed or garage, place a small platform under an eave. It’s a preferred nesting site for phoebes, and it could attract robins.
5 Count feeding trips. After the young hatch, count how many feeding trips the adults make to the nest in an hour. (Count trips for 30 minutes and double the number.) Multiply the total by the hours of daylight, and you will get an astounding number of trips per day. When you consider that the adults will do this for many days, you understand why selecting a territory with a good food supply is so important.
6 Monitor cleanliness. If you have a clear view of the nest, watch to see if a parent waits after feeding a chick for the youngster’s head to go down and rump to pop up, revealing a fecal sac, which the adult will grab.
Early in the nesting period, adults will usually swallow the sacs. Later, they will carry the sacs a distance from the nest before dropping them. This is a form of nest sanitation.
7 Offer mealworms. Add insect larvae to your feeding station, especially after the youngsters fledge. You can purchase the worms at a pet store. Place them in a container with sides. If it’s too hot, look for a shady spot. If you have bluebirds, place your worms near them. Adult birds may bring their broods right to your feeders.
8 Provide water. Add a bird bath, and you will be royally entertained, but remember, at least part of the bath should be very shallow. Many small songbirds can readily bathe in half an inch of water or less. (And don’t forget: Birds need to bathe in the winter too. An electric warming device will prevent freezing.) A system with moving or falling water is even better, as the sound will help attract birds.
9 Observe carpenters at work. Woodpeckers provide a lot of entertainment. Their nests are usually visible, their frequent tapping is easy to follow, and mutual drumming and chasing are parts of the show. For a challenge, try to find excavating chickadees. They rely on wood that fungus has made even softer than the wood that is utilized by most woodpeckers. The chickadee’s small bill is likely the reason; it doesn’t seem designed for excavation.
10 Visit a lek. Every birdwatcher should experience dawn at a lek of courting grouse or prairie-chickens. Read about the birds’ behavior in advance to appreciate the show fully. Watch as prairie-chickens come beak to beak across real but unmarked territorial boundaries. The birds will stomp their feet with blurring speed, inflate their air sacs to make oboe-like sounds, and jump and cackle wildly.
Later, a female may saunter through the dance floor, stop in the territory of a lucky male, and crouch, lowering her head and wings. The moment the selected male mounts her, every male in the vicinity will charge and knock him to the ground, leaving you to wonder how mating could possibly be successful.
Make an effort to expand your birdwatching from identifying birds to watching them. You’ll be rewarded with observations that showcase the many amazing behaviors of birds.
Eldon Greij is professor emeritus of biology at Hope College, located in Holland, Michigan, and the founding editor of Birder's World (now BirdWatching) magazine.|
Read more by Eldon Greij.