By David Hawke -- If Mother Nature were ever to sit in on a card game, you could count me out! For Nature doesn’t like to reveal any secrets, and if they are revealed, it's only because it needn't be kept a secret any longer.
One such 'secret' awaiting us at this time of year is the discovery of numerous bird nests that, over the past weeks, have suddenly become quite visible.
During spring and summer there is so much stealth associated with these little homes -- twigs and grasses are spirited into dense thickets, beaks full of wriggling caterpillars disappear behind a leafy branch only to re-appear empty. Trying to find an active nest in the summer is a quest best done by those who don't give up easily. But now, with the once concealing leaves dried and dropped, the nests appear as if on display, like exhibits in a museum -- artifacts of a season past.
This region is home to over 100 species of birds that breed here, and each species has its own style of nest. With a little practice, a person can learn to identify which bird type made which nest. Probably the first nest any of us identified was that of a robin, most likely atop the porch light; the outer layer a blend of mud and coarse grasses which had been moulded to a perfect circle and then accented with an inner liner of fine grasses that cradled those incredibly blue eggs.
Within the woodlot, the challenge of proper identification of found nests increases. Is that neatly made basket, adorned with spider webbing and birch bark, the former home of a red-eyed vireo or that of a least flycatcher? And that loose cluster of twigs in the fork of a maple sapling -- rose-breasted grosbeak, catbird or mourning dove?
Check out the shelves of a nature bookstore and you will find a few good guides that can provide aid in the identification of nests. (In fact, there seems to be a good nature guide available for just about any topic these days.)
Over the years I have had opportunity to see some really odd nests. Starlings seem to delight in trying to claim a rural mailbox for their own, stuffing twigs inside whenever the lid is left ajar. Wrens like to nest in holes, or cavities, and one year a nest was started inside an old cow skull that we had laying about on the farm.
An oriole's nest is a very unique structure to begin with, dangling like a torn sock from the drooping tip of an elm tree branch. I once found one where the birds had woven a huge long length of discarded fishing line into the nest -- a modern taste yet durable. Orioles will often dismantle last year's nest if materials are required for the current year's model.
Way out in Georgian Bay (and I mean way out there) are a cluster of islands known as The Westerns. Nobody lives there except herring gulls. When I visited a few years ago as part of a gull nesting survey, all the nests were made entirely of chicken bones! Seems the passing boaters have a penchant for fried chicken and for tossing the remains overboard. As chicken bones are hollow, they float... and once washed ashore the flotsam becomes available nest building material for the gulls.
Also a few years back I had the pleasure of giving an artist a nest tour of the local area. We were searching for big nests, such as those of osprey, heron, owl or hawk. She was undertaking a project that required her to "better understand nests, to get a feel for their construction." At first this sounded a bit 'artsy' for me, but what the heck, it was a chance to see some truly wonderful constructions.
On our tour I quickly learned that the artist was very serious about her project, and her excitement was contagious. Upon viewing the huge bulk of an osprey nest, she marveled at the complexity of materials used, the size, the steps taken to build it, and of the tree supporting it. I've spent a lot of time with birdwatchers, and her enthusiasm at looking at that empty nest rivaled that of a birder who's just found a new species.
Looking at that nest 'through her eyes' I found a new dimension to nature appreciation. Sure, it was just a big old nest, but really, it was a work of art.
Bird nests: abundant, fascinating and now revealed. Why not go for a walk and discover some yourself?
David’s Notebook: We have had some great traditional December days. Blue sky, white snow, nippy cold. Think of it as "retro weather', the kind of December I remember as a kid in the 1960s.
© 2019 David J. Hawke