Knowing the White-throated Sparrow

By Edie Parnum

White-throated Sparrow on northern breeding grounds. Photo © Gerald Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

White-throated sparrows come to my feeding station every day during the cold months.  Easily recognized, these crisply-plumaged brown sparrows sport a white throat, white stripes on the head, and a bright spot of yellow at the base of the bill. A tan-striped form has somewhat less bold plumage. I notice they prefer to eat the seeds on the ground beneath the feeders. Their feeding style is entertaining. They jump forward with both feet and then scratch back to uncover the seeds. Using their strong bills, they quickly crack the shell and consume the nutritious morsel. Over and over, they jump, scratch, and grab a seed.  Then, there’s a quick lift of the head to check for predators.

Around my yard, I glimpse them in the brushy areas. I’ve left the perennials standing over the winter and allowed leaves to remain on the ground. This is their preferred habitat where they find plenty of seeds and insect eggs, larvae, and cocoons. Flocked together and mostly hidden in the dense vegetation, I hear their soft chips as they keep in contact and a metallic chink sound if alarmed.  Occasionally they sing their sweet song, “Ole Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”. Mostly, they keep quiet, but alert, to avoid detection by hawks, neighborhood cats, and other predators. I think I know this bird well.

Tan-striped form of White-throated Sparrow feeding in leaf litter.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Admittedly, I see only a small portion of its life. The White-throated Sparrow isn’t a year-round resident here in southeastern Pennsylvania. With breeding grounds in the northern forests. I’ve never seen one establish its territory, build a nest, incubate eggs, or feed caterpillars to its young. I’ve missed seeing its life challenges, too.   At some point, it probably survived an encounter with a deadly predator or narrowly avoided a disastrous crash into a window.  Perhaps one spring it returned to its usual breeding location in the boreal forest and discovered it had been logged—destroyed to make toilet paper. I’ve probably missed all its major life events.

My feeders don’t provide everything these birds need. Opportunities to observe what this bird requires to survive are limited. The unseen beneficence of nature provides the food, shelter, water, and places to raise its young for this creature and all living creatures.


Prime Plants for Nature: Backyards for Nature 2019 Native Plant Awards

By Edie Parnum

Every year we feature two superior native plant species.  One of the Prime Plants for Nature is a tree, shrub, or vine and the other is a perennial.  Prime Plants are selected based on these criteria:

  1. Native to southeastern Pennsylvania
  2. Offer high wildlife value and contribute significantly to your property’s web of life
  3. Provide food for wildlife by producing nutritious fruits, seeds, nuts, nectar, or pollen
  4. Most host insects that are eaten by birds or other animals
  5. Offer shelter and places to raise young
  6. Easy to grow and make an attractive addition to your landscape
  7. Sold at native plant nurseries and native plant sales. (See list of local sources for native plants at the end).

Our selections for the 2019 Prime Plants for Nature awards are:

Amelanchier canadensis, Serviceberry (also known as Juneberry or Shadbush) A. arborea and A. laevis are closely related species.

Berries on Serviceberry ripen in early summer and are quickly eaten by birds. © Mark Gormel Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: In the early summer this small tree produces berries relished by American Robins, Gray Catbirds, Cedar Waxwings, and Northern Mockingbirds. Other birds and mammals eat the fruits as well. The popular fruits disappear quickly, often before they are completely ripe. The foliage of Serviceberry is food for 124 species of caterpillars including Striped Hairstreak and Red-spotted Purple butterflies and Blinded Sphinx and Small-eyed Sphinx moths. The nectar-rich flowers attract adult butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators.

Cedar Waxwing eating Serviceberry fruits. © Harris Brown. Click to enlarge.

Serviceberry is a host plant for Red-spotted Purple butterfly caterpillars. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Growing Conditions:  Serviceberry is easily grown in sun or part shade.   It prefers moist soil, but will tolerate a variety of conditions. Although sometimes subject to rust or leaf spot, it is normally free of any severe problems. Rust (Apple Cedar rust) can be a problem for anyone who also has nearby Eastern Red Cedar.  It is moderately deer-resistant.

Serviceberry blooms profuely in April. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Appearance: A single-trunk or multi-stemmed tree, Serviceberry grows to 15-25 feet at maturity.  This member of the rose family is covered with showy white blossoms in early spring before the foliage emerges. The

Blossoms of Serviceberry are popular with native bees and other pollinators. © Barb Elliot. click to enlarge.

attractive fall foliage is yellow to orange-red.  Amelanchier canadensis, A. arborea, and A. laevis are closely related species that hybridize and are difficult to differentiate unless you are a


The Serviceberry should not be confused with Bradford Pear, also known as Callery Pear, an invasive tree with similar white flowers that blooms at the same time.  The Bradford Pear has upright branches and denser, dark foliage. It out-competes native species, hosts very few native insects, and produces fruit that is unpalatable to birds and other wildlife.  For more info about invasive Bradford/Callery Pear in Pennsylvania, click here.

Garden Phlox, Phlox paniculata 

Giant Swallowtail, a rare butterfly in southeastern PA, visited my Garden Phlox. © Edie parnum. Click to enlarge.

Wildlife Value: Garden Phlox is a nectar-rich perennial that attracts native pollinators including butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds. The flower petals are fused into a tube (corolla). To access the nectar, a pollinator inserts its tongue (proboscis) into the bottom of the corolla.

Bumble bee nectaring at Garden Phlox. © Bonnie Witmer. Click to enlarge.

Butterflies and large bees with a long proboscis and hummingbirds can reach the nectar.  Small bees such as Sweat Bees, Yellow-faced Bees, Leafcutter Bees, and small carpenter bees have a proboscis that is too short to reach the nectar.  However, all will pick up pollen as they rub against the anther (male part) at the top of the corolla. Flying from flower to flower, these pollinators carry the pollen to the stigma (female flower part) of each bloom. As a result, reproduction occurs.

Among the insect pollinators using Garden Phlox, Hummingbird

A moth with transparent wings, a Hummingbird Clearwing, nectars on Garden Phlox. © Tony Nastase. Click to enlarge.

Clearwing Moth is a conspicuous day-flying sphinx moth that is sometimes mistaken for a hummingbird.  Also look for Peck’s Skipper, a small tan butterfly.

Growing Conditions:   Garden Phlox will grow well in sun or part sun in moist to average (tolerates clay) soil.

Appearance: The pink, lavender, or white flowers bloom profusely in late summer and early fall on 3-4-foot plants. Many cultivars (often referred to as navitars) are

Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on Garden Phlox. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

available, but some have reduced nectar production.  However, according to studies performed at Mt. Cuba Center, ‘Jeana’ produces nectar abundantly and attracts many pollinators.  Garden Phlox can develop mildew during hot, humid summer conditions.  Removing some of the flower stalks will improve air circulation and prevent mildew.  According to Mt Cuba, the ‘Jeana”, ‘Robert Poore’, and ‘David’ cultivars are mildew-resistant.

Other phlox species:  Woodland Phlox, Phlox divaricata, and Creeping Phlox, P. stolonifera, are spring-blooming phlox species that grow in part shade or shade. They attract a variety of pollinators including butterflies and hummingbirds. The flower structure is similar to Garden Phlox.


Local Sources of Native Plants

Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, 1635 River Rd. New Hope, PA 18938.  215-862-2924 or Nursery open April -October.

Collins Nursery, 773 Roslyn Avenue, Glenside, PA 19038.  Native trees, shrubs, and some perennials.  Spring and fall open houses.  Otherwise appointment necessary.  215-715-3439 or

David Brothers Native Plant Nursery, Whitehall Road, Norristown, PA 19403.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  610-584-1550 or

Edge of the Woods Nursery, 2415 Route 100, Orefield, PA 18069.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-393-2570 or

Gateway Garden Center, 7277 Lancaster Pike, Hockessin, DE 19707. Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  302-239-2727 or

Gino’s Nursery, 2237 Second Street Pike, Newtown, PA 18940.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  267-750-9042 or

Good Host Plants, 150 W. Butler St., Philadelphia 19140.  Straight species native perennials and woody plants of local genetic provenance. 267-270-5036 or

Jenkins Arboretum, 631 Berwyn Baptist Road, Devon, PA 19333.  610-647-8870 or Outdoor plant shop open daily 9-4 late April through mid-October.

Northeast Natives Perennials, 1716 E. Sawmill road, Quakertown, PA 18951.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  215-901-5552 or

Redbud Native Plant Nursery, 904 N. Providence Road., Media, PA. 19063.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. 610-892-2833 or

Yellow Springs Farm, 1165 Yellow Springs Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425.  Native trees, shrubs, and perennials. Landscape design and consultation services available.  Spring and fall open houses. On-line and phone orders available.  Otherwise call for appointment.  610-827-2014 or

Native Plant Sales

Bartram’s Garden, 5400 Lindbergh Boulevard, Philadelphia, PA 19143. 215-729-5281 or

Brandywine Conservancy, Routes 1 and 100, P.O. Box 141, Chadds Ford, PA 19317. 610-388-2700 or  Mother’s Day weekend.  Seeds also available.

Delaware Nature Society, Cloverdale Farm Preserve, 543 Way Road, Greenville, DE 19807.  302-239-2334 or  First weekend in May.

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, 2955 Edge Hill Road, Huntington Valley, PA 19006. 215-657-0830 or

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, 8480 Hagys Mill Rd., Philadelphia 19128. 215-482-7300 or

Welcome Nesting Birds!

By Barb Elliot, PhD

It’s spring, and once again I hear the songs of Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Mourning Doves, and House Finches as well as the drumming of Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  These and other local birds are attracting mates and warning rival males to stay out of newly claimed nesting territories.  At least nine bird species have nested in my yard over the years. As I look back, I remember the joy of seeing birds raise and successfully fledge their young, the heartbreak when things don’t work out so well, and the things I learned along the way.

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker at his work, March, 2018. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

In early February, 2018, I noticed a male Red-bellied Woodpecker tapping near the top of a dead Black Cherry tree trunk in my yard.  I had left this snag because dead wood is scarce in our tidy landscapes but sorely needed for nesting, feeding, and resting places of birds and other wildlife. Several other woodpecker species – Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flickers peck this tree and look under its peeling bark for grubs and other insects. Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers also scour the bark for insect morsels. I was happy to see the Red-belly using this tree to start excavating a nesting cavity.

Male Red-belly joined by his mate. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker worked day after day at this hole in all types of weather, and I was excited to see his progress.  At first he could just fit his head into the hole, but soon got half his body inside, then his tail. Finally he entered the cavity and looked out the hole.  He was joined by a female Red-belly, and they took turns at the work.  One would enter the hole, work inside, and call the mate. The mate then entered the cavity to gather small wood chips and sawdust in its bill and spit them out of the hole. Click here for a 2-minute video of this activity (better viewed on a large screen).

Male expelling sawdust and wood chips from the cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.before flying off.

By early May, after more than three months, excavation stopped. In mid-May I saw the female enter with food in her mouth – the baby birds had hatched.  I could hardly wait for nestling Red-bellied Woodpeckers to peer out from the hole!  But alas, it was not to be.  A few days later, the Red-bellies called repeatedly near the nest, but never entered it again.  I understood their agitation when a pair of European Starlings exited the hole.  These invasive cavity nesters had taken over the hole and removed the baby woodpeckers.  Sadly, the Red-bellies’ nesting season was over.

European Starling peering out after taking over the Red-bellies’ nest cavity. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Other cavity nesters have been more successful in my yard. For species that don’t excavate their own cavities, I chose boxes with the dimensions recommended for Tufted

Tufted Titmouse eggs in one of my nesting boxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Titmice, Carolina Chickadee, and House Wren, but with entry holes small enough to exclude House Sparrows and European Starlings.  I monitor the nest boxes no more than once a week to minimize disturbing both nestlings and parents.

Tufted Titmouse nestlings. Notice one unhatched egg. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




Over the years, I’ve planted a variety of locally native plants, especially trees and shrubs that support lots of leaf-eating insects, caterpillars in particular.  Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds in North America feed only insects, spiders, and other arthropods to their young. Even hummingbirds add tiny insects and spiders to their babies’ diet.  Packing more protein than beef, caterpillars are the preferred insect food for feeding nestlings.  Since 90% of caterpillars and other leaf-eating insects specialize on one type or family of plants, I

House Wren with small caterpillar eyed by hungry baby. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

planted a diversity of native plants to host a diversity of insects.  According to University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy, to raise a clutch of baby birds healthy enough to leave the nest, a pair of Carolina Chickadees must feed them between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars!



Carolina Chickadee eggs in another of my nestboxes. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.


Thanks to the native plants in my yard (see list of the 20 most valuable woody and perennial native plants) and the insects they support, Chickadees have successfully raised two broods of five to seven young each over the past 12 years. Tufted Titmice raised one set of five nestlings and House Wrens successfully raised at least eight broods of 5-6 birds each from my nesting boxes.  The importance of native plants to birds’ nesting success is emphasized by a recent 3-year

Carolina Chickadees almost ready to fledge. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

study of 200 suburban yards in the Washington, DC area.  Scientists from the University of Delaware and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center tracked nesting Carolina Chickadees and found that residential yards dominated by nonnative plants did not provide enough insects for birds to raise their young.  Chickadees were successful in raising and fledging young only when at least 70 percent of the plants in a yard were native to the region.  Birds larger than chickadees, such as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, obviously need even more insects and thus a higher percentage of native plants. We should all strive to have more native plants in our yards.

American Robin nest in my Trumpet Honeysuckle vine. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Several cup-nesting bird species – American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, and Mourning Dove – have also nested in my yard.  Robins nested in a vine, an evergreen tree, on top of a curved downspout, and on top of a wreath hung under my porch overhang.

American Robin nesting in the crook of a downspout. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.




These birds certainly need native plants to find sufficient insects to feed their young. However, they also require native trees, shrubs, and vines with dense branching and leaves to provide good structure for the nests and concealment from predators.

Mourning Dove nest in one of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

For example, several pairs of Song Sparrows and Mourning Doves have successfully nested in my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). These evergreens are dense, hide nests well, are difficult for predators like raccoons to climb, and host more than 40 species of caterpillars.

song Sparrow nestlings in another of my Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

If you are trying to encourage birds to nest in your yard, here are some tips and lessons I have learned:

1. If you add a nesting box, do a little research to select a box with dimensions for the birds you want, and mount it at the suggested height.

House Wren parent with bug and hungry baby.  I added this hardware cloth predator guard after losing  a full set of nestlings to a predator that reached into the box.  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

2. Nesting boxes with a predator guard of wood or hardware cloth will make it harder for predators like raccoons and squirrels to reach into the box. A baffle can be added below a box mounted on a pole or wood support.

3. Check a nest no more than once a week. Avoid checking nests when the young are close to fledging.  They may be startled into leaving the nest early and be more subject to predation.



House Wrens found many feathers to add to this nest, but the blue plastic strips on the left might entangle babies. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

4.  It’s better not to put out nesting material, as birds can find natural materials.  If you insist on providing something, do not put out yarn or hair longer than 2” to avoid entanglement.  Dryer lint, human hair or hair from dogs treated with flea/tick medications should not be used.

5. Check your yard for any plastic that birds may use as nesting material. A healthy baby Robin perished in a local nest when a plastic strip used in the nest wrapped around its leg and prevented it from flying from the nest.

Northern Cardinal nest in Barb’s Virginia Creeper on a trellis. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

6. If a baby bird without feathers is on the ground, return it to the nest. However, a baby bird on the ground that has feathers likely has parents nearby. Many newly fledged young spend time on the ground and are fed by parents for several days after leaving the nest.

7.Leave cats indoors year round to prevent killing of babies and adult birds.


8. Don’t use pesticides or herbicides. Birds and other wildlife in a healthy habitat will keep insects in balance.

9. Avoid trimming shrubs and trees during nesting season.

10. At the end of the season, clean out nesting boxes. This allows birds to use the box for roosting and cuts down on blowflies and other insect parasites that may prey on future nestlings.

Above all, enjoy the birds that visit and nest in your yard!  If you have (and keep adding) native plants, you can be assured that there will be enough food for them to successfully raise their young.

Edie’s Garden—A Place to Discover Nature

By Barb Elliot

Wildlife is abundant in Edie’s yard.  She finds birds, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, bugs,

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Monarch newly emerged and ready for release. Raised from eggs laid on Edie’s Butterfly Milkweed. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

beetles, bees, wasps, flies, and more – creatures she loves – living among her native plants.

It wasn’t always this way.  I saw the yard when Edie moved to this ¾-acre property in 2007. It was mostly turf grass. Except for a few native trees (Black Cherry, Red Maple, White Pine), no native plants grew here. Consequently, we observed few birds—just an occasional robin or starling—no other wildlife.  She knew she could transform her lifeless property into a healthy habitat for wildlife by reducing the lawn and planting native plants. It could become a place where she could discover, learn, and enjoy nature.

To create a healthy ecosystem on her property she wanted to:

  • Plant a diversity and multitude of native plants
  • Offer conditions for birds and other creatures to thrive and reproduce
  • Provide year-round food sources, water, cover, and places to raise young for wildlife
  • Welcome lots of birds—certainly hummingbirds
  • Create a place of beauty where she could be immersed in nature
  • Learn the species of flora and fauna and how they interact and depend on each other
  • Leave a legacy of nature for future generations with long-lived trees and shrubs

Gradually, year by year, she has succeeded in creating this haven for wildlife.  Eight years later I see thousands of native plants.  They include perennials, grasses, vines, ferns, and woody plants, i.e. shrubs and trees.  She planted densely, letting the plants touch each other as they do in the wild.  Her canopy trees are young, but the oaks and others will be massively productive for wildlife for decades.  Eastern Redbud, Flowering Dogwood, and Shadbush are already filling the understory.  The mature shrubs like Spicebush, Elderberry, and several viburnum species are now luxuriant.  At the ground

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family.  The beetles are protected by the milkweed's toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum.  click to enlarge.

Red Milkweed Beetles eat plants in the milkweed family. The beetles are protected by the milkweed’s toxins and the black and red colors. © Edie Parnum. click to enlarge.

level perennials, vines, ferns, sedges, and grasses, are profuse. This diversity of plants offer nuts, seeds, berries, nectar, and pollen.  Even the foliage of the native plants is indirectly a source of food.  Insects eat the leaves and become food for birds and other creatures.

Birds now find what they need to live and thrive. They eat the fruits, nuts, seeds, and nectar produced by the yard’s native plants.  Resident and migrating birds eat the insects hosted by her native plants. For example, Carolina


Chickadees can locate the 6, 000-plus caterpillars required to feed their young.  Of course, no pesticides are ever used.

Edie has added other features for birds.  She installed nest boxes for cavity-nesting House Wrens and Tree Swallows.  She allows fallen leaves to lie in many places. Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers rummage in this leaf litter to find insects. Carolina Wrens

 Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers.  © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, a well-behaved vine with hummingbird-attracting red tubular flowers. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

often locate their insect delicacies in the brush pile. On a snag (dead tree) woodpeckers, including a Pileated Woodpecker, forage for insects in the decaying wood. A Trumpet Vine grows on this snag and attracts hummingbirds seeking nectar from its flowers. A bird bath and small pond offer birds water. The bird feeders supply a small proportion of food needed by some of the birds. Many, many birds (106 species) love this yard.

Her meadow, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of her property.  It is chock full of colorful perennials and grasses.  Birds forage for seeds in late summer, fall, and winter. Numerous butterflies (30 species so far), bees, beetles, and other pollinators are active on flowers

Edie’s Meadow in late summer.  Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Edie’s Meadow in late summer. Flowers attract butterflies, moths, and other insect pollinators. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

blooming from April through October.  Even at night the meadow is alive with moths, beetles, and other insects and spiders.  Aiming a flashlight into the dense meadow plants, she can see the tiny, shining eyes of moths and other insects.  Bumble bees, too, sleep on the flower heads, resting for the next day’s work.

Edie has created a paradise for herself as well as the creatures that call her yard home. With binoculars and camera, she frequently takes nature walks around the yard.  The birds, whether eating, preening, feeding young, are always interesting.  Mating foxes are less expected.  Mating Garter Snakes, too. Even

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar on Sassafras, one of its host plants.© Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

better, she loves to discover a caterpillar eating leaves. When she locates other tiny creatures—bees, beetles, wasps, and others—she takes their photos.  At night she uses lights to attract moths.  She photographs these creatures, too.

Using the photos of insects, she can usually make identifications and then figure out their role in this ecosystem. What plants do they depend on?  What plants depend on them? What do they eat?  Who eats them?  Are they parasites?  Predators?

The possibilities for discovery are endless.  Mostly, she revels in success of the healthy ecosystem she has created.


Nature Discovery Day, August 29, 2015

Edie enjoys showing her garden with its native plants, birds, butterflies, moths and other creatures to nature-loving friends. On August 29th she will host Nature Discovery Day.  Throughout the day you can explore her yard, discover nature in action, and learn about habitat gardening. Guided walks for children and adults will be offered, too.  In the evening it’ll be Moth Night.

This event will be for a limited audience by invitation only. She’s inviting Backyards for Nature blog readers and their interested family and friends.  Save the date and watch for an invitation coming to you in late July or early August.

Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.


Keeping a Yard Bird List

By Edie Parnum

Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Pileated Woodpecker. Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

Looking out my kitchen window as I habitually do, I spotted a large dark bird showing bold white flashes on its wings flying to a snag at the back of my property.   Luckily, I keep my binoculars within reach on the counter.  It was a Pileated Woodpecker, a first for my yard.

This Pileated Woodpecker was #105 on my Yard Bird List.  Every new bird added to the list is special to me.  My count makes me proud that I’ve planted bird-friendly natives that host a variety of birds.  However, because my young trees are too immature to attract this woodpecker, the pileated was a surprise. It visited my yard because I left the trunk and some major branches on a dead tree rather than cut it to the ground.

The snag in Edie's yard that attracted the Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo by Edie Parnum

The snag in Edie’s yard that attracted the Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Keeping the yard list helps me hone my ID skills, visual and auditory.  A Least Flycatcher, one of those challenging
Empidonax flycatchers, once lingered in my yard for two days.  Seated on my deck, I could leisurely, but closely observe its diagnostic bold eye-ring, big head, short wings, and narrow tail. It did not sing, but occasionally gave a call, a little “pit” sound.  If I had been elsewhere on a bird walk, I
would have made a quick ID and quickly moved on to look for other birds.

Closely watching the birds in my ¾-acre yard improves my knowledge of their habits, food preferences, seasonality, and habitat requirements. I note the species of birds using each plant and the time of year.  In the spring, warblers, vireos, orioles, and other migrants glean caterpillars from the foliage of my Black Cherry and the young oaks and birches. In the fall, waxwings, mockingbirds, woodpeckers, robins, and other thrushes devour the crabapples.  A variety of sparrows eat seeds in my 1/10-acre meadow in the autumn.  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers bore holes in the Sweet Gum and crabapples in the spring and fall. A Magnolia Warbler foraged in the Northern Bayberry last September, but I’m not sure whether it was eating the berries or bugs. I’ll take a closer look if it returns to the same shrubs next fall.

Magnolia Warbler.  Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Magnolia Warbler. Courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.  Cllick to enlarge.

Do I count birds that fly over my yard without landing, you might ask?  Yes, although I can’t claim my improved habitat offers any sustenance to the flyovers.  Furthermore, I even added a distant, heard-only, Fish Crow to my list.   Perhaps I’m inflating my yard count, but I’m staying observant of all the birdlife around me. On the other hand, I didn’t count a Red-shouldered Hawk perched three blocks away that never flew over my property.

I keep a list of missing birds, too. I haven’t seen a Willow Flycatcher, Veery, or a White-eyed Vireo —how could that be?!   Lacking a stream or wetland on my property, I may never see a Louisiana and Northern Waterthrush.  Mature native trees are still scarce here, so the warbler list is slim–just 20 species.  Maybe during this fall migration or next spring I’ll find the missing Orange-crowned, Tennessee, Cerulean, Bay-breasted, Connecticut, Mourning, Wilson’s, or Hooded Warbler.  I probably won’t ever get an outlier like American Woodcock (wrong habitat), but I have hopes that a Northern Saw-Whet Owl will use my Eastern Red Cedar one day.

Keeping a yard list can be as simple as noting the birds on a piece of paper.  Or, even better, you can use eBird, a listing program that is one of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s citizen science projects.  By entering your yard bird sightings into eBird, you’ll have access to the records of other local as well as far-flung birders.  Your data will be incorporated into Cornell’s records and be used to track bird populations by educators, conservationists, and ornithologists around the world. or

Watching for birds is a part of my everyday life.  I can observe my feeder birds while working at my kitchen sink.  As I move around the house, I always glance out the closest window.  While relaxing on my deck, I’ve spotted many new yard birds.  I regularly take walks around the yard, too.  On good migration days, I go out early to look for new arrivals.  No travel is necessary, and there’s still time for the rest of the day’s activities.  Every day I’m connected to nature.