A Quest for Nests
In Vermont, we are gifted with the phenomena of four seasons. Each season offers us a unique invitation to explore and discover the ever-changing mysteries that unfold all around us; in the nearby woods, the brook that runs through the neighborhood or even in the vacant lot beside the local market.
One of the invitations given during the winter begins in the autumn in the form of falling leaves. Gone are the days of thick foliage offering shade for the sweaty runner and concealment for the vulnerable fledgling. Left now are bare branches exposing what has been hiding behind the dense greenery—look closely and you may find the homes to the winged beings of the sky. With the delight of discovery, a Crow’s Path kiddo points and hollers “look up there! It’s a bird’s nest!” Chins tilt skyward and all stand in momentary awe at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the nesting structure.
The search for nests begins with awareness. The detective work can start while on a walk in the woods, around the neighborhood block, or even in a backyard. With a mind-state of imagination and curiosity we wonder– if I were a bird, where would I want my home to be? The places that you find a nest can give you a lot of information on who the nest belongs to. Is it on the ground, in a tree or shrub, on a building? Just as you’re more likely to find a college student living in a dorm and a monk living in a monastery, so too will you find that you’re likely to spot a belted kingfisher nest in a bank and a hairy woodpecker nest in a tree cavity.
Once a nest is discovered, we look closely at the composition of the nest. What is it made of? Birds are wonderfully resourceful in finding and using a wide variety of materials for nest building. Mud, moss, twine and twigs, pine needles, feathers, and grasses are some favorites for those living in areas remote from human beings. Compare that to a nest found in a town garden; often times these nests will contain materials like cloth and string in addition to the other items favored by birds. In the spring, you can set nesting materials out in your yard as an offering to your nearby winged neighbors. One of our mentors, Mo, once put trimmings of his hair out behind his house after getting the latest trending haircut for wizards and bards. A few weeks later, as he was out exploring with his k9 comrade, Suli, he happened upon a nest that contained the very hairs from his head that he had brought out!
And just as you might note whether a house is a colonial, Victorian, split-level, or apartment building while on your commute to school or work, we also note the shape of the nest. Is it a platform, a hanging pouch, a messy bundle of sticks, a precariously placed nest formed like a cup? These details, too, will give clues to discovering the builder’s identity as different species prefer different structural strategies.
Some birds take great time and care in building their homes. The cowbird on the other hand, has independently evolved the habit of laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, having dispensed with the task of actual nest building. Thickets and fencerows are the ideal spot for these birds to scope, for here there are plenty of nests in which they can lay their eggs. In a woodland clearing, like the Meadow Duncan at Rock Point, where young saplings grow, the chestnut-sided warbler is most often parasitized, whereas along fencerows in more developed areas, song sparrows and white eyed vireo are two unwitting victims of the clever bird’s tactics.
Generally speaking, it is best to leave nests where they are found. While some birds build new ones each year, there are certain birds who do not. As a general rule, the small birds that nest in hedgerows or in low shrub build a new nest for each brood that they rear. Larger species that nest high in trees, in holes, or in the eaves of houses generally re-use their nests each year, adding structure to the nest each breeding season. So best to leave them be, for even a catbird’s nest, left over from the previous year, containing nuts and beetle’s wings, may be used as a winter home for mice.
Sometimes during Field School an enthusiastic observer will point high up towards the crotch of a red oak branch near the trunk where a messy pile of leaves and twigs sits, suggesting a similar aesthetic to that of the room of a lackadaisical teenager. While that is, indeed, a nest, it does not belong to a bird. What we are looking at is a drey—an Eastern gray squirrel’s nest and an alternative to living in a tree cavity. Red squirrels also build dreys out of round grassy balls 8-10” in diameter. Flying squirrels too, take up the homing habit of dreys, but they are often too high up in a tree to be observed.
And with that, we cordially and heartily invite you, yes YOU that lays your eyes upon these words, to go out and see how many nests you find within a quarter mile radius of your home. You may know how many human abodes dwell in your surrounding neighborhood, but what about your nearby avian residents? Create a map of your area of residence and block, marking streets, houses and notable trees and markers. As you explore your neck of the woods during your dog walks, bunny hops, and bike rides, mark each nest you find on the map. Then the magic really begins as you notice the comings and goings of birds in your neighborhood. Some folks will share the map they’ve created with families, friends and neighbors to insight community delight for those that are also curious about these often overlooked inhabitants. We have heard tales of this exercise being done in neighborhoods—the results are an end to the days of bland neighborhood banter, instead giving way to communal relishing of the animate world of the sky. We wish you luck as you explore the unfolding mystery of nests!