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Give A Warm Welcome to Nesting Birds With NestWatch

By Pat Leonard
From the Spring 2015 issue of Living Bird magazine.
Give A Warm Welcome to Nesting Birds With NestWatch, White-Eyed Vireo nest
White-eyed Vireo. Image courtesy of Nestwatch.

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It’s April and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that a hard winter across much of the United States is finally in the rear-view mirror. It’s also time to watch for breeding birds, which may be nesting closer to home than you think. We talked to Robyn Bailey, leader of the Lab’s NestWatch project, about some of the ways we can provide a warmer welcome for breeding birds and the importance of monitoring their nests.

What are the best ways to attract nesting birds?

One great way is to put up a nest box. The right kind of box in the right habitat will attract cavity-nesting birds such as bluebirds, swallows, chickadees, and titmice. If your land is a little more forested, you might get Great-crested or Ash-throated flycatchers. If you’re near a marsh or water, you might see cavity-nesting ducks. To attract open-cup nesting birds, such as Mourning Doves, cardinals, and robins, you can plant native trees and shrubs, which provide safe places for nests.

How can I get started in setting up a nest box?

Using the “Right Bird, Right House” tool on the NestWatch website, select the type of habitat you have and the region where you live. NestWatch provides a list of birds you could attract with a nest box. You’ll get plans for how to build the box, directions on where to place it, and other tips to increase your chances of success. If you’d rather buy a nest box, NestWatch also has a list of the best features to look for. Stay away from anything that is meant just for decorative purposes.

How would I know if birds are nesting nearby?

There’s a good chance that most people have some kind of bird nesting in their yard or a nearby park. Look up in the trees in early spring, before the leaves come out, and see if you notice any old nests. If you find any, there’s a good chance that a bird might come back and either use that nest or nest nearby. If you listen closely, you might hear a bird giving an alarm call as you approach its nest. You may see a bird suddenly burst from a shrub as you walk past, or you may see the parents flying to their nest with food for the chicks.

What nesting materials are okay to put out for birds?

I recommend putting out only natural materials, such as cotton batting, feathers, animal wool (sheep, goat, alpaca, etc.), and pet hair. I have moved away from saying that threads and cotton yarns are safe after seeing evidence from wildlife rehabilitators that birds can get tangled in these materials, even when you cut them into very short pieces. Why risk it? Also stay away from dryer lint and any kind of plastic, including Easter basket grass.

Is there a danger of attracting predators to nest sites being monitored?

Citizen scientists who monitor nests for NestWatch can reduce the likelihood of attracting predators or accidentally harming a nest by following our Code of Conduct. Collect data carefully, but don’t stay more than one minute at any nest. Never leave a dead-end trail to a nest; in addition to trampling vegetation over time, you might also leave a scent trail. Instead, mix up your route and avoid approaching and leaving on the same path. We have a certification quiz that covers all the basics.

Robyn Bailey is the project leader of NestWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo by Paul Paradine.
Robyn Bailey is the project leader of NestWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Photo by Paul Paradine.

What are we learning from nest monitoring?

Our long-term data set has been the basis for several studies related to climate change. For example, studies have shown that Tree Swallows are nesting earlier than they were a few decades ago. More than 100 studies have used NestWatch data that describe the basic ecology of birds, including such things as how clutch sizes vary geographically. We’d really love to get more data about nesting aerial insectivores—swallows, Purple Martins. Many species are noticeably declining in numbers. Researchers are also exploring how light pollution could affect nesting birds, using Barn Swallows as a model species.

NestWatchers are pretty dedicated, aren’t they?

They really get into it! Every day our staff receives pictures from participants as they watch the chicks grow. Monitoring a nest is so different from the typical birdwatching experience. One woman had a wren nesting in the spare tire of her car, and she didn’t drive until they fledged!

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