For the Birds: Phoebe and cowbird eggs

Here is the latest For the Birds column …

Photo by Chris Bosak An Eastern Phoebe visits a bird bath in Danbury, Conn., March 2016.
Photo by Chris Bosak
An Eastern Phoebe visits a bird bath in Danbury, Conn., March 2016.

During the first spring at my house three years ago, I noticed a bird going back and forth under my neighbor’s lofted porch.

Closer inspection confirmed my suspicion that an eastern phoebe had a nest there. The mud-and-moss nest was built on an old row boat oar that hadn’t been used or moved in many years.

OK, a flat surface under a protected area, I thought as I plotted to create my own phoebe nest habitat for subsequent springs. I rummaged through the basement and found a rectangular piece of wood, approximately 14 inches by 18 inches. I nailed the wood to some of the 2x8s beneath my own porch. Even if the phoebes don’t use it, surely a robin would, I thought.

First spring, nothing. Second spring, nothing. Third spring, nothing. Three years and not even a stick placed on the platform.

But wait.

Not so fast on the third spring. April and May yielded nothing, but in early June I walked past the platform and noticed a small mud-and-moss nest on the wood. It wasn’t built on the main part of the platform, but rather an excess corner of the wood that jutted beyond one of the 2x8s. My dad would have called the excess “slop” because of its shoddy craftsmanship. But, hey, I wasn’t shooting for perfection, just good enough so a bird could build a nest. Besides, the slop turned out to be a fortunate “mistake.”

As of this writing, the nest holds five eggs. It is likely a second or third brood for this phoebe as they are one of the first birds to arrive in spring — usually by the middle of March.

But the news isn’t all good. Only four of the eggs are white phoebe eggs. A darker, mottled egg of a brown-headed cowbird is also in the nest.

Brown-headed cowbirds are brood parasites and lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, leaving the parental duties to the host bird. Phoebes are a common victim, as are other small birds such as warblers and sparrows. Brown-headed cowbird eggs typically hatch earlier than the other eggs and the baby cowbird grows at a faster rate. This makes the host bird work overtime to raise the cowbird, often at the expense of the other young birds.

Cowbirds do this because of their notorious nomadic nature.

So, just remove the cowbird egg, right? Not necessarily. The female cowbird monitors the nest and may destroy the nest altogether if the cowbird egg is disturbed — either by the host bird or human intervention.

An article I found on audubon.org brings up other legal and ethical questions. It used to be common practice to vilify cowbirds and everything they stood for. The no-good, lazy birds are destroying other birds and should be destroyed, was a common line of thinking — and still is for many people, I’m sure.

The Audubon article, written in 2018 by Amy Lewis, states that people shouldn’t interfere with nests that have cowbirds eggs. Firstly, it is illegal as per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as cowbirds are native to the U.S. Though, technically, it is illegal to pick up a blue jay feather found on the ground, but not many people I know would hesitate to grab the feather.

The article, quoting several sources, also states that it is best to let nature take its course. Human feelings and morals should not interfere with something that has been going on in nature for hundreds of years.

It’s funny how research and science can change public opinion over time. Ten years ago I couldn’t imagine writing a bird column saying to leave cowbird eggs alone. I’m still somewhat on the fence about the whole thing as I imagine the phoebe under my porch working her tail off to raise a cowbird with possible grave consequences for her own babies.

But I will not interfere. I will watch the nest daily and see what happens. The first phoebe egg was laid on Tuesday, June 11. Another phoebe egg and the cowbird egg appeared on June 12. The phoebe laid another egg on Thursday and another on Friday. Photos of the eggs and nest may be found at www.birdsofnewengland.com.

That’s where we stand as of now. I’ll keep you posted.

Update: As of Friday, June 21, the nest remains with four phoebe eggs and one cowbird egg.

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For the Birds: More sightings from readers

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Scarlet Tanager perches in a tree in Danbury, Conn., July 2016.

The sightings emailed in from readers have been so interesting that they have warranted being the topic of columns for several weeks in a row now. It’s creating a backlog of column ideas for me, but that’s a good problem to have. Besides, spring is the most active time for birdwatchers, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

A quick rundown of my own highlights as spring migration trails off and the birds get down to the important business of nesting:

I haven’t seen my rose-breasted grosbeaks in a few weeks. I’m hoping they are hunkered down on nests. I have, however, seen my ruby-throated hummingbirds Continue reading

Back to back For the Birds columns

Here are the last two For the Birds columns, mostly focused on what readers have been seeing this spring.

Photo by Chris Bosak A male indigo bunting eats seeds from a platform feeder in Danbury, Conn., in May 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A male indigo bunting eats seeds from a platform feeder in Danbury, Conn., in May 2018.

If the past season was the Winter of the barred owl, this is the spring of the indigo bunting.

I’ve heard from numerous readers and friends throughout New England and even Canada about this bright blue bird visiting their backyards. The cause for excitement is obvious as it is one of our more colorful birds, flashing a brilliant blue plumage. The brilliance of the blue plumage is dependent upon the light.

It is also nice to hear that so many of these birds are around and delighting backyard birders in large numbers. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are another popular bird this spring. I’ve had limited luck with indigo buntings this spring, but for me, it’s been a banner year for rose-breasted grosbeaks. I’ve seen as many as three males in a tree overhanging my feeders. A female visits the feeders often as well.

It’s also been a good spring for warblers and nearly every walk last week yielded yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, black-and-white warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts and yellow-rumped warblers.

I’m not the only birdwatcher enjoying a productive spring. Here’s what Continue reading

A few yard visitors, part II

Photo by Chris Bosak A ruby-throated hummingbird visits fuscia blooms in Danbury, Conn., May 2019.

The ruby-throated hummingbirds came back a bit late this year, to my yard anyway. Last year it was late April. This year it was early May. Regardless, they are back and buzzing around like they own the place.

A few yard visitors, part I

Photo by Chris Bosak
A rose-breasted grosbeak eats safflower seeds from a feeder in Danbury, Conn., May 2019.

Now that Warbler Week has passed and the spring migration is on a downward trend (but far from over), I’ll take the next few weeks to share photos of some yard visitors I’ve had this spring. As always, feel free to contact me with what birds you’ve been seeing. Send to chrisbosak26@gmail.com. Be sure to include the town and state in which the sighting was made. Thanks!

Slight adjustment brings on the blue jays

Photo by Chris Bosak
A blue jay grabs a peanut from a homemade feeder in Danbury, CT, March 2019.

Blue jays didn’t like the homemade peanut birdfeeder when it was hung from a chain, but they came quickly after I set the feeder on its side. It’s so interesting to watch each species’ preferences.

Chickadee on peanut feeder

Photo by Chris Bosak A black-capped chickadee lands on a birdfeeder offering peanuts, Danbury, CT, March 2019.

One last shot of that homemade peanut feeder I wrote about last week. Here are the other two links, in case you missed it. White-breasted nuthatch. Downy woodpecker.