Jul 24 2008

The babies’ crib

Published by at 7:07 am under Nesting & Courtship,Songbirds

Two weeks ago Chuck Tague sent me photos of a red-eyed vireo’s nest and a baby bird quietly resting in it.  The vireo’s nesting season is nearly over so you may not see these wonders now, but I couldn’t resist writing about them as they’re such a great illustration of the energy a small bird puts into nesting. 

The red-eyed vireo suspends her nest from the fork of a thin horizontal branch.  Though she hides it in a leafy place, she often builds it only 5-10 feet off the ground so it’s possible to encounter it at eye level.  The nest is 2.75 to 3 inches in diameter - so small you could hold it in the palm of your hand. 

The female builds the nest alone in only five days using spider webs to attach it to the branches and hold it all together.  She uses bark, grasses and thin paperlike substances and lines the inside with finer material such as pine needles and animal hair.  Sometimes she decorates the outside with lichens. 

All of this work is done for only one purpose – to provide a safe, hidden bed for her babies. 

Three to five days after she finishes construction she lays 2-4 eggs, one egg per day, and incubates them alone.  In 12-14 days they hatch.  She and her mate both feed the nestlings; ten to twelve days later they fledge. 

As soon as the babies leave the nest it is never used again.  It is truly a babies’ crib, not a permanent home.

Sadly, brown-headed cowbirds sometimes find the vireo’s nest and force her to raise their young instead of her own.  I’m happy to see Chuck found a baby red-eyed vireo in this nest and not a cowbird.  This mother’s work was not in vain.

(photos by Chuck Tague)

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “The babies’ crib”

  1. Doug Baumanon 24 Jul 2008 at 9:37 am

    Reminds me of an encounter, and a subsequent story I wrote about the Red-eyed Vireo 4 years ago
    Doug Bauman

    In Any Walk With Nature…

    I have been recently photographing a mother bird and her eggs. On two occasions after having discovered a bird’s nest in the woods, I ventured to photograph the mother bird, eggs and nest, which was conveniently located at chest level. Telling myself to be careful not to get too close, I presumed that I would not inadvertently cause her to leave the nest. This was a risky endeavor, as others told me that the mother may abandon her eggs, but having discovered one cowbird egg in the nest I became more daring, deciding to remove the foreign egg from the Vireo’s nest. Neither this event nor the actual photography in themselves, as I hoped, had any direct effect on the mother or her two remaining eggs that could be measured in a period of four days following. If all had gone well, then the effect would have been unobservable.

    In general terms, the effect people have on nature beyond the immediate nuisance of the casual contact of mankind with nature, is perhaps best measured over large time frames. The friction caused by people unhinges itself over the ages and results in wild things being shy or afraid of us. We sometimes wonder why.

    The mother peacefully roosted those next four days without my further interference. But after that period something happened. The mother was making uneasy noises from up in the trees. I wondered what was wrong and took a quick glance in the nest. The eggs were gone. I was appalled, quite upset really. I wondered what had caused the demise of the two remaining Vireo eggs? I searched the ground, but could not find them.

    The mother is gone now, probably for good. If one were to ask what happened, I would have to honestly say, ‘I cannot say, but I have my suspicions.’ I believe that I, having observed the mother and her eggs, am indirectly responsible. If one were a detective looking for evidence, all that may be found would be circumstantial. And without delving into those circumstances surrounding this event, I believe that my observation attempts lead to the loss of those eggs. By observing I changed the interactions of nature. I won’t be giving up on my observations, but in the future I think I’ll be more careful, and perhaps buy a more powerful zoom lens, and most importantly, will keep my oaf fingers to myself.

    “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” — John Muir, one of the original founders of the Sierra Club

    On this walk with nature, I learned an important lesson. Perhaps we ought to thoughtfully add one more note:

    In any walk with nature, one disturbs far more than he knows.

    Douglas A. Bauman

    June 2004

  2. Kate St. Johnon 24 Jul 2008 at 1:11 pm

    I agree that it’s important not to disturb nests and not to attract the attention of other predators by leaving your scent as an arrow that points to a nest. Human presence can lead to nest failure for a number of reasons.

    The good news about Chuck’s photos is that the vireos were fledging that day; the nest was about to be empty.

    We all should be careful to abide by the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics regarding nests & sensitive areas:
    “Keep well back from nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display areas, and important feeding sites. In such sensitive areas, if there is a need for extended observation, photography, filming, or recording, try to use a blind or hide, and take advantage of natural cover.”

    For the complete ABA Code of Ethics, see: http://www.americanbirding.org/abaethics.htm

  3. Lauren Conkleon 24 Jul 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Every year, I have house wrens nesting in my backyard. Two years ago, I read that you can put nesting material like sticks, grass and animal hair inside a suet basket and place it in your backyard for birds to use in their nests. I thought it would be fun to see if a wren would benefit from that, so I tied a basket with nesting material to a branch in the tree where I have my nest box. The wren completely ignored my basket as he went about building a nest in the box, but two plain, brown birds entered the yard and went directly to the basket and checked it over from top to bottom as though they were fascinated with the basket and its contents. They were two female cowbirds who mistook the basket for a bird’s nest. It took them several minutes to decide that it was not a nest and move on. (They looked inside the nest box too, but fortunately for wrens they are too big to enter.)

    Every time I see a cowbird I get so frustrated knowing that it was raised by a bird of another species, at the expense of that bird’s offspring. If a nest containing a cowbird egg is found, is it wrong for a human to remove that egg, or is it best to leave it alone and let nature take its course?

  4. Marjorieon 24 Jul 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Thanks to you and also to Doug Bauman for his interesting “story”. While birding/atlassing with Margaret Higbee on one occasion we encountered a pair of very upset red-eyed vireos and after noticing a blue jay flying around closeby — were upset ourselves to see that the vireos had cause to be concerned. The pirate blue jay (beautiful birds but their “diet” bothers me) just helped itself to 2 eggs (brunch, I guess). I just felt so sad for the poor vireos. As you say so much work they put into their little nest and so much care for their chicks. Nature can be heartbreaking at times…

  5. Kate St. Johnon 25 Jul 2008 at 11:22 am

    Everyone: I asked Dr. Tony Bledsoe about removing cowbird eggs because I was pretty sure they are protected by law. Yes they are. So don’t remove them unless you are licensed to do so!

    Tony writes,
    “Kate –
    It is illegal, without a license, to remove a cowbird egg from a nest. Brown-headed Cowbird is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed into law in 1918. It is hard for people to realize that cowbirds are natural. However, in some instances (e.g., Kirtland’s Warbler), researchers are issued permits to remove eggs.
    Tony”

    (I corrected the text above per Dr. Bledsoe’s comment below.)

  6. Anthony H. Bledsoeon 25 Jul 2008 at 3:10 pm

    The legislation I referred to in Kate’s post is properly called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, passed into law in 1918.

    Tony

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