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: Gray jay is out; Canada jay is in

Photo by Chris Bosak A gray jay perches on the roof of a car in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak A gray jay perches on the roof of a car in Pittsburg, N.H., November 2018.

Well, I did it again. Apparently I’ve been using the wrong name for a bird for the past year or so.

Recall a few weeks ago when I wrote about the common gallinule that had been seen near the Dillant-Hopkins Airport. Many people, myself included, initially referred to the bird as a common moorhen, the name previously used for the bird. In 2011, the American Ornithologists’ Union changed the name to common gallinule after splitting the species from a similar bird in Europe and Asia.

I’m not as far behind on this latest name change. In May 2018, just about a year ago, the union changed the name of the gray jay to the Canada jay. The handsome, bold bird of the north was historically called the Canada jay anyway, so it was really a change back to an old name.

I wrote a column back in November about a trip to Pittsburg, during Continue reading

Classic For the Birds: Paddling freshwater

I’m heading to New Hampshire for a few days of camping. It’s been a while since I’ve paddled any lake, pond, or river in the Granite State and I’m looking forward to seeing what wildlife will be around. Of course, I’ll let you know when I return. In the meantime, here’s a For the Birds column from 2004 about this very subject …

Photo by Chris Bosak A Great Blue Heron stands on a piling along the Norwalk River on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.

A great blue heron lifted its skinny four-foot frame out of the water and used its six-foot wing span to carry it to another spot on the lazy river. It was spotted again around the next corner.
A wood duck skulked into the vegetation and disappeared without a trace. Once a wood duck vanishes into the sea of huge green leaves, you can forget about seeing it again.

A muskrat braved a crossing at a swelled portion of the river, using its tail as a rudder. Marsh wrens proudly belted out their peculiar, almost comical, song.

Meanwhile, there were many constant companions. Red-winged blackbirds boisterously claimed various plots of the river’s edge as their own, dragonflies zigged and Continue reading

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

For the Birds: Falling behind on name changes

Photo by Chris Bosak A common gallinule in Naples, Florida, April 2019.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column:

I brought up the subject of bird name changes last week. The column was about eastern towhees and how the ones we see here in the East were formerly called rufous-sided towhees.

I recently visited family in Florida and came across another interesting bird name change. Coincidently, it relates to a bird that paid a rare visit to Keene last week.

We were walking on a trail south of Naples and seeing many of the birds typically spotted in Florida. One of the more ubiquitous birds was the common moorhen. We kept hearing a rather strange bird, call so I took out my phone, launched my birding app and typed in “common moorhen” so I could find out what the bird sounded like.

Nothing came up. How could that be, I wondered. I know there is a bird called the common moorhen. I saw many of them the last time I was in Florida.

Phone service was spotty on the trail, so I couldn’t do an Internet search for common moorhen at the time. When we got back on the road I discovered why I couldn’t find common moorhen. The bird no longer exists as the common moorhen. The American Ornithologists’ Union split the U.S. bird from the similar marsh bird that is found in Europe and Asia.

The bird found overseas is called the Eurasian moorhen and the U.S. bird is now called the common gallinule. Florida has always had the purple gallinule; now Continue reading

Finchy Tuesday

Photo by Chris Bosak Goldfinches at a feeder in Danbury, CT, April 2019.

I’m laid up with a bum foot on this gorgeous New England spring day (grrrrrr) so tromping through the woods looking for warblers is out of the question. Some colorful visitors, however, have come to the feeders to keep me company. It’s been a finchy day with goldfinches (in bright summer garb) and house finches stopping by. I’m on the lookout for some purple finches.

Since I’m temporarily out of commission, let me know what spring birds you are seeing out there.

Photo by Chris Bosak House finches at feeder in Danbury, CT, April 2019.