Bird Brain Friday (A Little Late!)

Note: For the past couple of years, volunteers with our Wings Over Willapa Festival have delighted Facebook fans with our Bird Brain Friday feature. Every Friday, we post some interesting facts about birds to educate and entertain. We’ve decided to start cross-posting them here!

It’s time for Bird Brain Friday! Right now it’s nesting season for many species of bird in our area, from songbirds to raptors to corvids and more. Over the coming weeks they’ll be creating nests, laying eggs, and raising their young. Some species have been here year-round, while others, as we discussed in an earlier BBF, have migrated from thousands of miles away just to raise their young in our neighborhood.

The most familiar nest is one woven of grass, sticks and other natural materials, and nestled in a tree or on a ledge. Some species of bird may even use spiderwebs or mud to help hold their nesting materials together. Hummingbirds and others will cover the outside with lichens for camouflage, and all nests have a nice, soft lining made of feathers and other cozy material. Similar nests are built by cavity nesters, who find holes in trees or use human-made nest boxes and then fill them with grass and other natural materials. Many times these nests can be seen in your back yard, or occasionally in a nook on the side of your house!

Not every nest is so easily accessible to the casual viewer, though. Cormorants, Caspian terns and other seabirds build their nests on the cliffs by Cape Disappointment; this makes it much more difficult to predators to get to the vulnerable eggs and chicks. One seabird goes to extraordinary lengths to find a suitable nesting spot. The marbled murrelet isn’t much bigger than a baked potato, but it will fly up to 50 miles inland to find old-growth forests to nest in. There, the female seeks out a branch at least six inches wide with a deep growth of moss, and then lays a single egg in that moss. Her mate flies back and forth from the ocean to feed her, and once the chick is born both parents make this daily commute. The severe loss of old growth forests has led to this species becoming critically endangered.

One more notable local nester is the western snowy plover. These birds simply lay their eggs in the sand, with perhaps a few twigs surrounding them. The eggs and birds are both camouflaged to protect them from predators. On the Long Beach Peninsula, invasive beach grass has destroyed almost all of the snowy plover’s potential nest sites, and human activity often disturbs most of the others. Willapa National Wildlife Refuge has restored a section of nesting habitat on Leadbetter Point and closes it off during nesting season to give these threatened birds a better chance at successfully raising their young. In fact, successful hatching and fledging has increased in the years since this restoration!

How can you help nesting birds this spring and summer? The first and foremost way is to not disturb nesting sites. It may be tempting to take a peek at eggs or baby birds, but this is stressful for the adults, and can lead to them abandoning the nest if they feel too unsafe. If a bird has built a nest on your house, do not remove it; it is illegal to disturb the nests of almost all wild birds here due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Give the birds a few weeks to raise and fledge their young, and then they’ll give you your little patch of house back.

If you want to leave any nesting materials out, make sure it’s made of very short fibers, like the fur your dog or cat sheds. Longer items like human hair or yarn can get wrapped around a bird’s leg and cut off blood flow, causing the limb—and often the entire bird—to die. Also, keep your cats indoors; outdoor cats are a leading cause of wild bird death, to include nestlings and fledglings, and even if your cat never brings their kills home they may still be killing birds out of sight, or harassing them and causing them to abandon their nests and young.

By respecting our avian neighbors in this vulnerable time, we give the next generation of birds a better chance of surviving to raise their own families in the years to come, and increasing the diversity of birds who share our beautiful home.

–By Rebecca Lexa, Master Naturalist