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.

Chickadees in Winter

By Edie Parnum

On cold winter days, watching perky Carolina Chickadees lifts my spirits. Nasty wind, snow, and ice do not deter them.  At the window of my warm kitchen with its well-stocked pantry, I wonder how they survive the frigid weather. Weighing only as much as four pennies, they are the smallest birds that visit my feeders. They must be vulnerable to starvation and hypothermia.

Imagining they depend on my beneficence, I diligently keep my feeders filled. My

Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat.  Photo  Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat. Photo © Howard Eskin.

Carolina Chickadee fluffs its feathers and shivers to retain body heat.  Photo © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

chickadees land on the feeder with a jaunty bounce.  They never stay on the feeder perches to eat speedily like the House Finches.  The finches have large, strong beaks to break open seeds and can quickly chow down multiple seeds. Instead, chickadees use their tiny beaks to pick out an individual seed and carry it to a nearby branch. Holding it with their feet, they pound with their bills to break open the shell and access the meat.  They repeat this again and again.  Being a chickadee is hard work.

I enjoy watching chickadees in the wild, too.  Yes, I do go outside in winter—my down jacket keeps me warm.  Walking through the woods, I often hear their “chickadee-dee-dee” call before spying them.  Sometimes merely a soft “sit-sit” sound alerts me.  In winter chickadees, along with Tufted Titmice, are leaders of a mixed flock of birds. These little sounds help the birds stay in touch as they roam a mile-wide circle.    The flock usually includes White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers.  Sometimes Hairy Woodpeckers, Brown Creepers, kinglets (both Golden-Crowned and Ruby-Crowned), and others tag along, too.  The chickadees and titmice have this following because they are exceptionally alert to predators and adept at finding food.

Chickadees search for food all the time. Using their beaks they continuously probe the crevices of bark, branches, and buds.  Little acrobats, they use their strong claws to hang upside down and investigate the undersides of branches and other vegetation.

Chickadees feed their nestlings exclusively insects and spiders gleaned from foliage and tree bark.  Photo courtesy of and @ Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer.

Chickadees feed their nestlings exclusively insects and spiders gleaned from foliage and tree bark. Photo courtesy of and @ Steve Creek, Wildlife Photographer.  Click to enlarge.

Even with my binoculars, I can’t see what the chickadees are eating.  Their eyesight is keener than humans’.  With twice as many receptors in their eyes and the ability to see ultra violet light, they locate their prey: tiny, camouflaged eggs, larvae, and other hibernating insects and spiders.

Scientists tell me fifty per cent of Carolina Chickadees’ winter diet comes from these dormant creatures.  Insect food is proportionately higher in fat and calories than plants. Nevertheless, they relish the sunflower and safflower seeds at my feeders.  Sometimes they eat suet and peanuts, too.  In the wild they consume seeds, berries, and cones.  Frequently I observe them devouring seeds while dangling from the balls of a Sweet Gum tree next to my house.  Native plants like Eastern Red Cedar, Poison Ivy, Eastern White Pine, Tulip Poplar, and various birches and goldenrods are favorite foods in my yard and beyond. They cache some food items, remembering the location to retrieve when needed.

Chickadees possess special adaptations to withstand the cold.  Before the winter season starts, they grow 50% more feathers.  To minimize heat loss they fluff up their feathers to

A Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep warm. Chickadees and other birds will use a heated bird bath for drinking and bathing when other water is frozen.  Photo © Edie Parnum.

A Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep warm. Chickadees and other birds will use a heated bird bath for drinking and bathing when other water is frozen. Photo © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

create air pockets—I think of my down jacket.  Researchers say, however, shivering is the primary way chickadees maintain their body temperature.

Carolina Chickadees’ most difficult challenge is to survive the long, cold winter nights.  I spend my nights in a heated house covered with layers of blankets—oblivious to the possibility of freezing to death. At night a chickadee will roost singly in a cavity or dense vegetation—seemingly an inadequate strategy for retaining body heat through the night.  It can, however, lower its body temperature by 10 degrees to minimize loss of calories. Remarkably, chickadees can endure temperatures as low as -35 degrees.

I wonder if feeding the chickadees and other birds helps them survive the winter.  They obviously like my well-stocked feeding station.  Before, during, and after snowstorms, birds flock to my feeders in especially large numbers. They can’t access their natural food items when covered with snow, especially when coated by ice.  Nevertheless, chickadees using feeders do not become addicted to “bird” seed. They rely on insects and plant food in the wild as well. In fact, chickadees living in remote areas depend completely on natural food.  Their survival rate is almost as high as for birds whose diets are supplemented at feeders. Chickadees probably do not require my assistance.

A pair of chickadees survived the winter in Barb’s yard and laid seven eggs.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

A pair of chickadees survived the winter in Barb’s yard and laid seven eggs. Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Alas, many chickadees do die during the winter. Despite their impressive adaptions to the cold, 50% don’t survive.  We shouldn’t worry, however. The healthiest, best adapted will live to breed in the spring and lay 3-10 eggs.

Now in late January, chickadees still have weeks of freezing winter ahead.  Nevertheless, the chickadees know the daylight hours are getting longer and spring is coming.  Already, I’ve heard them sing “see-bee, see-bay,” their mating song. They are practicing for the breeding season when they will attract a mate, defend a territory, build a nest, lay eggs, and feed their young.  I take heart, chickadees will survive and thrive for years to come.

Carolina Chickadee identification, life history, and sounds: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/carolina_chickadee/id

Recommended native plants for Carolina Chickadees (note especially Trees and Shrubs): http://www.valleyforgeaudubon.org/bfn/pdf/recommendedPlants031410FINAL.pdf