A Bird’s Tale

Fur, Feathers, and Other Bird Nest Treasures

Posted:  Wednesday, May 16, 2018 - 9:30am
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Now that the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas is underway, we are finding ourselves glued to watching the drama of the social lives of our local birds on a daily basis. We are, of course, spying in hopes of catching a glimpse of some behavior that would allow us to unequivocally confirm that the bird species in question is indeed nesting and raising young in our particular atlas survey block.

It will not surprise you to know that we’re most carefully scrutinizing the breeding bird atlas block where we live, if only because we can watch the birds as we engage in our everyday general activities.

Last week we noticed a gray catbird, having just arrived within the week, already gathering material to build a nest. The bird had found a small piece of plastic from somewhere in the neighborhood and was carrying it off to its hidden nest site, probably deep in a tangle of bushes, as they typically prefer. That sighting confirmed gray catbird as a breeding bird for our atlas block but it got us thinking more about what birds use in their nests.

We decided to help and also possibly make it easier to confirm more breeding birds in our atlas block by providing something safer than plastic for a bird to use in its nest. There seemed something almost poetical about the idea of offering up to the birds some of the shedding hair of our two indoor-only cats. Happy cats (they love to be groomed) ensued, and we soon had handfuls of fluffy, warm feline fur. Within minutes of putting the first batch out into the lilac tree near the bird feeders, we spotted a tufted titmouse gathering up a bunch, the fur puffing out from both sides of the bill as it flew away toward our neighbor’s backyard. Another bird species confirmed as breeding for our atlas block! A few days later we put out some more and a chickadee did the same thing. How gratifying! We are watching expectantly to see if any other birds come to incorporate our cats’ fur into their homes.

Birds make use of an astounding array of items for their nests. While watching our son’s high school tennis match recently, we saw the silhouette of a large bird that appeared to have a very long tail. For a second, we thought we were looking at a magnificent frigatebird from Aruba! Closer inspection revealed that it was an osprey carrying a very long stick to rebuild a nest, perhaps one that had been damaged in the wind storms of the past autumn and winter.

More comical-looking were the double-crested cormorants we saw down at Biddeford Pool last weekend. They were picking up strands (in one case, more like a large clump) of seaweed and flying over to a small island where a few dozen were building their small nest mounds on the ground.

One of the most endearing nesting materials we know of has to be what female common eiders use for their ground nests: they pluck out their own soft, downy breast feathers (the same feathers used in down jackets and comforters) to make an ultra-warm and cozy cushion for their eggs. When they occasionally leave to feed, the eggs are guaranteed to stay warm even on a cool spring day on the coast of Maine.

What a great way to continue in our celebration of the Year of the Bird, by indulging in our fascination with the most intimate details of their lives and remembering how fortunate we are that one hundred years ago the most historic of legislation came into law—the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—to ensure their protection!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the recently published “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell University Press.