Seasonal Bird News

Happy Easter Everyone!

It’s one of the most rewarding times of the year for bird feeding enthusiasts. You may have noticed a bit of a slowdown at your feeders recently but keep in mind that birds on the nest tend to gravitate to insects for a while to feed young.  I have seen about a 50% slowdown in the last few weeks, but that’s about to change.  Recent sightings of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings at feeder’s means feeder activity will again pick-up with their arrival.

We tried to pull together an informative blog for this week but just ran out of time.  So we’ve compiled a few minutes of spring bird feeding video for you to enjoy.  Just yesterday morning I saw at my feeders the first male Rose-breasted Grosbeak of the season.  Hopefully all of you have your feeders full and ready because they are pouring into this area now and will continue for the next three to four weeks. 

In the video you will see multiple Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, male and female, at a platform feeder full of sunflower, and a lone Indigo Bunting that seems unconcerned about being totally surrounded.  You will also see a Pine warbler that has been coming to my feeder filled with our Woodland Blend.  It has visited suet feeders as well.  It may look a little like a Goldfinch at first glance but at the end of the clip you will hear its distinct Pine warbler call. 

Bluebirds love mealworms and the one in the video can’t seem to get enough in his beak.  Most Bluebirds are likely involved in their first nesting by now but if you want to attract them there is still time.  Bluebirds may nest up to three times per season.  Always start with a nest-box first.  After they discover the nest-box you may want to consider feeding them, although it’s not necessary for success.

And check out the mass of Goldfinches on the long tube feeder.  Goldfinches are in full breeding plumage now and really light up the backyard.  Note the differences in male and female coloring.  During spring migration Goldfinch numbers at your feeders can literally change on a daily basis.  Be patient and check the quality of seed in your finch feeders regularly.  Wet weather can really have a negative effect.  And finally there’s a little video of a Carolina wren feeding babies at a nest-box on my back porch.  

We at The Wood Thrush Shop want to wish you all a happy spring and Easter.  Have a great weekend and enjoy the wonderful backyard birding of spring in middle TN!

Spring Migration

Spring Migration is in full swing which means there will be a lot of interesting birds to see if you spend a little time looking around your yard, or at any of our wonderful parks and greenways. If you are going out for your morning, or afternoon walk don’t forget your binoculars because the neo-tropical migrants are passing through, or arriving in middle Tennessee every day on the way to their summer breeding areas. Warblers, Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Tanagers, Swallows, Hummingbirds, and many other species are there for the viewing if you try. Early in the morning, between 6 am and 10 am are best to see some of these birds because many of them migrate at night then settle down in the mornings to feed and rest.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Male Indigo Bunting

Male Indigo Bunting

The first Ruby-throated hummingbirds to arrive or pass through TN have already been sighted. Usually one, maybe two hummingbird feeders at this time of year is enough. Don’t bother filling your feeder to full capacity at this time as the feeders are of little interest to them this early.

In the coming weeks at your feeders expect to see the always popular Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. Of course American Goldfinches are here in abundance year round but are now putting on their bright yellow spring plumage.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak

RB Grosbeak males are quite handsome with their black and white plumage and v-shaped splash of red on the chest, while females are brown and white with heavy streaking. Both have the distinguishable heavy beak. These birds may be seen in good numbers at your feeders. In years past I’ve seen as many as a dozen at a time, or some years just a few. They are fond of several types of seeds and feeders. Sunflower and Safflower are the more preferred seeds, while platform, hopper, and tube type feeders all work well. Let us know when you see one.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Interestingly there are still good numbers of our winter visitors like Purple finch, Pine Siskin, and even Red-breasted Nuthatches in the area.

Reports of Bluebirds with completed nests and with eggs are sprinkling in. It’s still relatively early and plenty of time to attract Bluebirds to a nest box. In years past I would not see a first Bluebird nest until late April.

For daily bird sightings reports of migrating birds you may want to subscribe to TN bird e-mail list, or visit Tennessee Birding on Facebook.

Spring birding class

There is still time to register for Richard Connors bird identification class at Radnor Lake this spring. The 5-week class runs Tuesday mornings from April 9th to May 7th, and includes classroom sessions and morning bird walks. Radnor is a premier location for spring migrants and those migrants are often heard more easily than seen, so this spring class will emphasize "birding by ear". We will work on bird identification by sound as well as by sight. The class is open to beginners, but some prior knowledge of our local birds will be helpful. There is a fee for the 5 week class with part of the proceeds going to Friends of Radnor Lake.

For more information see this web page:

http://www.pbase.com/rconnorsnaturephoto/spring_bird_class_2019

To register for the class contact Richard at rconnorsphoto@aol.com or 615 832-0521.

House Wren Competition

After our blog about “dealing with predators and problems” appeared last week we received a couple of comments about House Wrens (HW). One comment referred to the HW as a predator. Technically the HW is not a predator but a competitor, and has been known to pierce eggs and even kill baby birds in the nest box. They also have the unique behavior of filling up several available boxes with their nest material with no intention of using those nests. These are known as “dummy nests”. This is an interesting dilemma because the HW is a native songbird and must be treated as such.

House Wren

House Wren

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

The House Wren is not a year round species, like the Carolina Wren, and tends to first appear in this area around mid-April. They are fairly common but many of you will never see one in your yard. In 28 years at my home I have never included the House Wren on my “yard bird” list.

House Wren nest is comprised of course sticks.

HW’s use almost exclusively sticks for nest building so when monitoring your nest boxes this is an easily identified nest. Any advice we can offer to help keep HW’s from doing what they do may “backfire”. Offering more choices of nest boxes can alleviate “pressure” on the one or two already present but may encourage more HW activity. Spending a little time monitoring your boxes can help. For instance, if you find sticks in a nest box where Bluebirds have been building a nest you may remove the sticks. Don’t just drop them on the ground because HW’s will just retrieve them and put them back. Or as we suggest with House Sparrows plug the entrance hole to a box for a while if you see HW activity.

Wren guard diagram.

Bluebird using box with wren guard.

An interesting strategy to try if you have experienced HW issues is the wren guard. The wren guard disguises the entrance hole. (Click here for a more in depth look at the wren guard). The wren guard is best used after a Chickadee or Bluebird, for example, have already fully committed to a nest by laying eggs.

It’s good to remember competition among birds for nest sites can reveal some difficult things about nature.

We hope this helps some of you and next week we will spend a little more time on monitoring Bluebird boxes. Please keep the questions coming. We enjoy being able to address things you want to learn about backyard birds.

Attracting Bluebirds: Dealing with Predators and Problems

Last week we invited you to ask questions you may have about Bluebirds, or any backyard bird subject. Trish Bolian asked us to show the difference in a Bluebird nest and a House Sparrow nest. And because Chickadees often use nest boxes we will show the 3 nest comparison. Thanks, Ms. Bolian.

Eastern Bluebird

House Sparrow

Carolina Chickadee


Unfortunately for nesting birds here in mid-TN there are a number of predators and pests that can deter, disrupt, or destroy an attempt to nest. It’s no different for Bluebirds.

The most common problems are the House Sparrow, Raccoons, and Rat snakes.

Male House sparrow

Female House sparrow

The House Sparrow is perhaps the most common and frustrating to deal with. This introduced tenacious species is particularly noticeable in spring when the nesting season kicks in to high gear. You see them busily building nests in some of the most unlikely places, car washes, in traffic lights, gaps in broken store signs, Home Depot rafters, and in gaps or openings in just about any fast food restaurant. They may suddenly appear in yards and show interest in a nest box. Their nest is course, sloppy, and may contain debris like candy wrappers, cigarette butts, feathers, and odds and ends. These birds are highly motivated and typically get started in early March. House Sparrows have been known to pierce bluebird eggs and/or physically remove them from the nest. And in many cases they will fight the adult Bluebirds, sometimes putting so much pressure on them they decide to abandon. We have seen examples of adult Bluebirds being killed by these violent confrontations. So, what can be done? There are both passive and aggressive techniques that can be employed. The one you choose may depend on your level of past experience with House Sparrows. And we encourage you to under no circumstances allow a House Sparrow to use any of your nest boxes.

Ø If House Sparrows (HSP) begin showing interest in your Bluebird (BB) box by landing on and entering act quickly and plug the entrance hole to deny further access. Given a few days or a week of denied access the House Sparrows may become extremely eager to nest and look elsewhere. Repeat the process if they show up again. We see little evidence of BB nesting in early March but more likely early to mid-April. Be patient. Even if the BB shows up and looks at the box resist the temptation to unplug it, especially if the Sparrows have recently been there. After a few days of not seeing the HSP unplug the box and monitor for possible return. Be more patient than them and you just may win the battle.

Ø You may also pull out HSP nests and destroy eggs. Again, if this does not fit your philosophy at least plug up the box. Just don’t let them have it.

Ø We have two different Sparrow traps that can be effective. The Van Ert Sparrow trap is one that mounts inside the box and has a spring loaded mechanism that releases a door quickly closing the entrance hole thus trapping the bird inside. Pros and cons: this is a trap you should be monitoring frequently. It is best used if Bluebirds have not been present, only Sparrows. It is perfect for catching a Sparrow that has already begun nest building. After installing the trap use the Sparrows nest material taken from the box and drop it on the ground below the box. Sparrows will almost certainly go to that nest material and attempt to put it back in the box. Perfect. They go in trip the mechanism and will be caught as indicated by the bright orange marker displayed in the entrance hole. Just releasing them will put you back to square one. Relocating probably requires up to 10 miles. Relocating is not recommended and technically violates laws on transporting wildlife. The other option is to dispose of the bird. This is a touchy subject and one to be considered and decided by the individual. House Sparrows have been heavily factored into the beginning of the decline of Bluebirds many years ago. They are an introduced, non-native species therefore unprotected by law.

Magic Halo

Magic Halo

Sparrow Spooker

Sparrow Spooker

Ø Contraptions like the Magic Halo works quite well although we’ve seen HSP’s totally disregard it at times. The only place I’ve seen the Magic Halo available is on Amazon. The problem with the Halo is it is difficult to adapt to a bluebird box. For some reason it was made more with intent to keep Sparrows off bird feeders. The basic idea of the Halo is to create a vertical column of monofilament (fishing line) around the box. These are relatively easy to construct and one can use materials around the house to improvise. HSP’s are visibly bothered by the contraption and are reluctant to land on the box or go to the entrance, but not Bluebirds. Another contraption you may see is called the Sparrow Spooker. I am less confident in this one because I have no practical experience with it. Anything is worth a try when it comes to discouraging HSP’s. For more information about discouraging HSP’s visit the North American Bluebird Societies (NABS) website at www.nabluebirdsociety.org and Click here to visit their page on House Sparrow control.

Above all before taking action please positively identify the bird going into your nest box. Be sure it is a House Sparrow. Any other native species should be welcomed and have a chance to use the box.

Click on the picture to read more on raccoons from Tennessee watchable wildlife.

Click on the picture to read more on raccoons from Tennessee watchable wildlife.

Click on the picture to read more on rat snakes from Tennessee watchable wildlife.

Click on the picture to read more on rat snakes from Tennessee watchable wildlife.

Raccoons and Rat snakes are formidable predators and can be dealt with in much the same way. Raccoons are intelligent and great climbers, and Rat snakes are supreme climbers. Not all of us presenting Bluebird boxes will encounter these two but if you experience regular and on-going visits from Raccoons at your bird feeders we would encourage you to employ a Raccoon baffle on a pole to protect your Bluebird box. We carry baffles that will fit a metal pole up to 1 ¾” diameter, and wood posts up to 3 5/8” (todays 4x4). It should be noted a squirrel baffle may or may not stop either one of these predators. YouTube is loaded with videos of raccoons negotiating around a squirrel baffle.

Box placement has proven to be a factor, too. My 10 box Bluebird trail in a field has had no predation by Raccoons in many years of service. Boxes placed more in field and meadow situations tend to see less raccoon activity. Boxes placed adjacent to woodland and stream environments tend to see more. In this situation placing a nest box on a tree is not advised. This goes for rat snakes, too. A good raccoon baffle should stop both raccoons and rat snakes the vast majority of the time. For do it yourselfers you may want to check out the National Bluebird Society website for plans on PVC baffles and other critter stopping hardware and tips. Click here for NABS Predator control page.

Cats account for the majority of damage to bird populations in general. If you have a cat that is mostly outdoors and does a lot of hunting please reconsider this practice, but also we would recommend not having birdhouses or feeders until such time that you no longer have a cat. No guard or baffle stops a cat and most of the time a cat is waiting for its prey on the ground. Bluebirds are primarily ground feeders and become an easy target.

We can’t protect Bluebirds from every possible dangerous scenario in nature but it’s been through efforts of homeowner and Bluebird organizations that Bluebird numbers are strong today. Through a thoughtful and common sense approach to placement of boxes, observation, and monitoring we can continue to help Bluebirds thrive and enjoy being a part of the process and their success. As always we are available for on sight consultations and in-store recommendations.

Get Ready for Bluebirds

In the coming weeks we will be sharing information about Bluebirds. We would like to address specific questions and concerns you may have that can then be shared with everyone. If you have questions regarding Bluebirds please email us at thewoodthrushshop@gmail.com and we’ll provide answers in our weekly blog.

Have you been watching and listening? Birds are singing and going through some of the motions of courtship. The breeding season is fast approaching. Its evident Eastern Bluebirds have already begun searching and competing for mates and potential nest-sites. Several times in the past few weeks I’ve seen multiple Bluebirds land on and look in the nest boxes around my yard. (See video) In the video you will see classic courtship behaviors like wing fluttering.

Although most Bluebirds won’t begin their first nesting until early to mid-April, their search for nest sites will typically intensify in the last weeks of February and into March. A few eager Bluebirds may get on nest as early as mid-March.

You may think you don’t have the right situation for Bluebirds because you’ve heard they have very specific needs for a nest-box location. Not true. Most things you hear about what Bluebirds need are very much over stated. Bluebirds adapt very nicely to all kinds of yard situations. If Bluebirds needed the “perfect setup” as described by the many articles you may read about them they would be extinct by now. These perfect nest-sites generally never existed in nature.

natural bb nest.jpg
IMG_3692-009.jpg

In fact it’s interesting to consider where Bluebirds nested before people started putting out nest-boxes. Bluebirds are considered a secondary cavity nester which means they will not excavate a nest, like a woodpecker, but use one that has been created already. Once upon a time secondary cavities were in great supply but through habitat loss and competition Bluebirds were “forced” to adapt to birdhouses, or what we refer to as nest-boxes. Using nest-boxes is example of Bluebirds adaptability. Offer a couple of nest-boxes in good locations and see what happens. If you already have nest boxes now is a good time to make sure they are cleaned out and free of old debris left over from last year’s nesting’s.

Here are a Few Tips on Choosing a Location:

Ø An open lawn area may be preferable but not absolutely necessary. Choose the most open location available in your yard even if it means there will be a little more human traffic.

Ø Bluebirds are typically more sensitive to a lot of bird traffic, so it’s not recommended nest boxes be placed near bird feeders. What’s a comfortable distance? It’s impossible to be exact but we would suggest 50 to 100 feet away, or out of sight of feeding stations.

Ø You may have heard that nest boxes need to face east. While this may be helpful to keep wet weather from being a detrimental factor this is not something Bluebirds require.

Ø A Bluebird box does not need to be on a pole. The advantage of a pole is it allows you to position the box in the location you determine to be the best. Bluebird boxes can be mounted to trees, fences, and utility poles. A height of 4’ or 5’ is sufficient. Our pole system for Bluebird boxes will put the box at 5’ after installation.

Ø How many boxes can be offered in a typical yard situation? So, there is no harm in offering lots of nest boxes (birdhouses) in your yard but do not expect them to all get used at the same time especially if they are close in proximity to one another. For instance, two nest boxes within 25 feet of one another are not likely to be occupied simultaneously. Birds are too territorial to accept this situation unless they are colony nesters like Purple Martins and Cliff Swallows. But feel free to decorate your yard with lots of birdhouses if that’s your thing. Offering multiple nest-boxes is great and it does lessen the competition for a single box but do consider the nature of the species you are trying to attract and what kind of setting would be most appealing.

Ø We are often asked “when is a good time to put up a bluebird box”? Every day is good. However, it is a great time to do so in the next few weeks because the breeding season is fast approaching. The sooner they know the box is there the more likely they will consider using it this season.

And PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE remember do not let your desire to attract Bluebirds cause you to clean out other songbird’s nests like Chickadees, Wrens, Tufted Titmice, or White-breasted Nuthatch. In no way does cleaning out these birds nests ensure you will get Bluebirds. Chickadees typically nest earlier than Bluebirds and only once. So PLEASE let the Chickadees have the box if they have begun to nest.

Bluebirds will nest up to 3 times per season and have plenty of time. Even if you do not get Bluebirds during the first nesting there is still time for two more. Besides, if a Bluebird wanted the nest-box it would easily out-compete a Chickadee. Enjoy the fact that you’ve attracted a native songbird to your nest-box and watch the process. It’s a lot of fun.