Field notes: Become a nest watcher

Written by Fahy Bygate
 | Tuesday, 04 August 2009 21:17

It’s August and my backyard has become a nursery for cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches and titmice.  Sometimes the begging noises are deafening.  Since most songbirds are the size of adults when they leave the nests it is difficult at first glance to tell the young ones from the parents but, if you watch for a minute, you can pick up on that universal baby behavior. 

There is much fluttering and shivering of wings going on.  All the babies are trying to convince the parents to keep feeding them when it is clear to everyone that the young are quite capable of feeding themselves.  I watched a juvenile cardinal follow its parent around the feeder, crying piteously.  Just when I thought it would collapse of hunger it gave up and flew to the table feeder to feed itself.  I know just how that parent felt.  

Nesting for most species is over or nearly over.  Some of the late ones, like the goldfinches are still at it but for the most part the parent birds are kicking back with a cold one, glad that this year’s crop is on its own.  Nesting takes a lot out of a bird.  The entire reproduction thing is exhausting and building and feathering a nest is a good part of it.  Each species does it differently, too.  

Robins are pretty adaptable about where they build.  They will make nests in deep woods or gardens or parks, on buildings, on the ground, in bushes. Both male and female construct the nests.   They aren’t fussy about housekeeping.  Their nests are often messy with grass sticking out at all angles.  They usually lay three gloriously blue eggs.  Only the female incubates which takes about two weeks.  As soon as the eggs hatch the male takes care of the fledglings while the female lays another clutch.  

On the other hand, the Spotted Sandpiper makes a scrape in the sand for a nest and lays about four speckled eggs that resemble the sand so well that it is easy to step on one.  Then the male incubates the eggs and tends to the few needs of his precocial chicks while the female takes off!  Luckily for the males, precocial birds emerge from the egg nearly ready to take on the world.  Unlike robins (and people) they are able to run and feed by themselves within two days.  

If you have been watching birds in your yard raising young, you know it can be a hobby all its own.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University has established a program of volunteers called NestWatch to help determine the causes of species decline among birds.  As their Web site explains, “NestWatch teaches people about bird breeding biology and engages them in collecting and submitting nest records. Such records include information about nest site location, habitat, species, and number of eggs, young, and fledglings. Citizen scientists submit their nest records to our online database where their observations are compiled with those of other participants in a continentwide effort to better understand and manage the impacts of environmental change on bird populations.”  

NestWatch has a short list of “focal species” that they are especially interested in and most of them are common back yard birds like Blue Jay, Goldfinches, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, etc. However, you are not restricted to just those birds. Pick your favorite bird or the one closest to home.  You can probably find a nesting bird in or near your yard and contribute to this important effort.  You needn’t be an expert birder or even a birder at all to spot a nest, monitor the activity over a month-long period and report on its success or failure.  If you would like to be a “citizen scientist” go online at and sign up to monitor next summer’s nests!