Background Switcher (Hidden)

Ever Seen a Chickadee Quilt?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

I can't begin to tell you how sweet it is to stand on my dirt road on a May morning and drink in the sights: the light, the sky, the clouds and the sounds of the birds who make their homes on our land. It's such a simple thing, to walk out the door, trot out the driveway and about a half-mile down the dirt road. I find myself praying it stays dirt for good; that nobody plops houses on the haymeadows or lets them grow up to woods. Simple prayers, but heartfelt.

In this video, you can hear, more or less in order, Carolina wren, song sparrow (scold), indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, American redstart (the really loud see see sweew) Eastern towhee, Tennessee warbler, a school bus turning around, orchard oriole, common yellowthroat, American robin, a possible blackpoll, and northern cardinal. Of those, only the Tennessee warbler and blackpoll are  migrants, headed farther north; the rest are going to hang around and breed right here. I'm pretty used to picking apart a cacophony of birdsong into its various contributors, but this presents a bit of a challenge. It's a birdsong menudo. Everyone's singing at once!


I watched the young male redstart and a pair of white-eyed vireos fluttering in the sunlit edge, looked for but couldn't find the tanager and orchard oriole, and gazed at my beautiful new doggeh, feeling very lucky. 

It's all so beautiful. I could never tire of seeing the light stroke across this landscape, especially with a cur in the foreground. Going out with Curtis every morning puts a big piece back into my scattered jigsaw puzzle of a life.

The field daisies are just beginning to bloom, dotting the haymeadows with clean stars of white. They always start blooming well before I'm ready for them, and every year they're a delightful surprise. Oh! The daisies are out! Even before it really warms up for good. It's a disgusting 46 out at 5:47 AM which is what you get when the skies clear and all that heat radiates out into space. But then what will follow is a sunrise and a sparkling sunny day, so hauling all that stuff back into the greenhouse is ultimately worth it.  I've let daisies come into my flower beds, because they make me happy. I can see how they got out of gardens and into everyone's fields.  

One of the things I do in spring and summer is check my bluebird boxes. Technically, I try to hit each box at least once a week, but when there are babies, I check a bit more. Things can always go wrong with babies, and it's good to be looking in.

Checking my boxes gets me out into red-headed woodpecker habitat like this. Hearing their querulous squirks! lifts my heart. Seeing their banner colors stops it. 

Really, how can a bird be so gaudy, so perfectly clean-cut, so noisy and social; so delightful? Red-head was a pretty obvious choice by Bill for his favorite bird. Someone less enthusiastic and outgoing might have chosen something more subtle. (Says the person who chose blue jay).

You may detect hazy August light in these shots. I certainly do. Though I usually post up-to-the-moment iPhone photos, for the birds I occasionally have to go back and raid the long-lens archives. Not apologizing. Just 'splainin'. 

Ahh, that's better. Look at this glowery May day!! And I get to be out checking bluebird boxes in it! Lord. What a place I get to live in. These skies, I'd put them up against Tuscany's any day.

Here's a box, perfectly sited by my sweet late friend Jeff Warren. He built the box, I built the pole and baffle. We were a team. 

Inside that box, three bluebirds, two males and a female, 14 days old. They're atypical 14-day-olds, small and not as fully feathered as they should be, but thanks to all the rain, the hay is tall and foraging is tough for bluebirds when the hay gets so tall. They'll be OK, even through these nights in the 40's, because it's going to warm up and quit raining so much now. Right? This is why I check more often when there are babies. Someone might need help.

Though it's really pushing Blogger to ask it to publish two videos in one post, here's the father of these babes, dive-bombing me. Turn the sound up to hear the angry castanet snapping of his bill as he comes close. This bird was paired for years with a female who was just as aggressive as he. She disappeared, and their box went empty for the first time this spring. He's turned up at this box, several hundred yards away, now paired with a female who vanishes under duress.


Of course, I am perfectly aware that the dive-bombing male here could be the son of the pair in question, but finding the box the Aggressors had occupied for at least five years suddenly empty led me to the possibility that the female died and the aggressive male moved. My observation from 37 years of running bluebird boxes is that, in eastern bluebirds, female choice drives nest location. I've seen male bluebirds try to override their mate's choice of a nest site, and it is not pretty. Those girls know what they want, and a male can resort to beating her up and even tearing out her nest, trying to get her to change her mind. So, having perhaps lost his mate, Mr. Aggressor had to change locations, letting his timid new mate dictate where the nest would be. It's kind of nice to be swooped on by only one bird. Maybe just a touch of PTSD from my years of working with least terns, who swooped, sometimes struck, and pooped on me, too.

Back in the Aggressors' original box, someone finally moved in! What a wonderful surprise! And not a bill snap to be heard.

I am usually wearing going-to-town clothes when I check the boxes on this road. The tall hay is almost always wet, and so am I.  But oh, the sights you'll see!

I watched this pair in a haymeadow on my road fool around with a half-built nest for weeks. They only got serious when a pair of tree swallows showed interest in the box. I suspect the female is getting quite old and just had to gather herself to build and lay this year. She's usually a late nester, but initiating a first clutch on May 12 is really pushing it. Still, she laid five beautiful eggs (the norm around here is four). I honestly think these small Gilbertson PVC nest boxes, and the small slot boxes as well, discourage bluebirds from laying their full normal clutch of 5. Which may not be a bad thing; in times of privation, it's tough to raise all five. It's always a pleasant surprise to see a fiver in my little boxes. 

But the best surprise of this day was yet to come. This PVC box in my driveway started out with bluebirds who laid two eggs, then mysteriously abandoned. I think they started over in another box just down the driveway. Why, I have no idea. 
Another(?) bluebird came in and covered the eggs with a new grass lining. Well, OK. If they're going to go to waste...I dug down, fished the cold eggs out, and farmed them out into two other nests, where they both proved to be infertile. Maybe that first bluebird knew something about her own eggs.
The renovating bluebird never laid eggs in the nest, and it sat empty for several weeks. I left it, because something interesting could yet happen, and it was a perfectly good, fresh nest. One day I found it all tamped down and neatened up. Oh! Someone's been renovating! 

And a few days later, a very pissed off Carolina chickadee shot out and scolded at me when I checked it. Oh!! I left her alone for a week. You don't want to disturb a nest-building bird. And when I finally checked again, I found the MOST marvelous thing.

A patchwork chickadee quilt, made of three kinds of fur (rabbit, squirrel, and something with dark brown wooly underfur); some soft grass, and two wads of green Hollofil!!!  I suspect the Hollowfil is still from toys Chet Baker used to shred on our lawn. Hollofil doesn't biodegrade, but it is wonderful insulation. Chickadees know this. They love it, and Polarfleece too. I found a chickadee nest once with purple Polarfleece from Chet's (and now Curtis') favorite blankie. She must have gathered it while it was hanging out on the line!

While she's laying, a Carolina chickadee makes a little quilt that she lays over her eggs to hide them when she's away. Because I have checked many a chickadee nest, I knew to lift the patchwork quilt. It came up in one neat piece, like a blanket. And there beneath, treasure.

I covered the tiny orbs back up and went on my May way.


Thank you for this blog today, Julie. So especially full and tender, near and far, then and now, insight and outlook, song and silence. Tight hugs to you for sharing this morning with us.

Good morning, Julie
If the chickadee gathers fleece from blankets hanging on the laundry line, how does she gather the fur from rabbits and squirrels?

Enjoy your blog .. your property is beautiful!


One of my favorite types of your posts (although really, I love them ALL), following along from afar as you show me your birds and nests and vistas. I've learned so much from such a pleasant instructor!

That's awesome that Chickadees quilt! Perfect description for the blanket too - many of us quilters like to use a variety of designs (a style often called "scrappy") and recycle / repurpose items too - making quilts from used plaid shirts is a trend for example! When I was a Bluebird monitor for Deep Run Park overseeing 17 nestboxes I had an aggressive male dive-bomb me on occasion. He is still there at the same nest box after 10 years, still raising 3 clutches a year and still feisty :)

The wonderful gifts of May! Love your photos and videos. Give Curtis a hug for helping you out.

That scenery!
That dog!
That new thing I learned...chickablankadee!

@Heather, I would imagine that many of the chickadee's fur finds come from carcasses and roadkills. I have witnessed this. However. There are videos online of titmice snatching fur off sleeping dogs and people, and I have a wonderful series of photos of a titmouse taking fur out of a coon's back while she was busy raiding my feeders in broad daylight. Lactation will do that to a girl.

Fascinating and amazing!

I love your blog posts.

I enjoyed this post again today. I picked my birds in childhood influenced by a mother who was a homemaker who should have been a naturalist. There was always a Bird feeder made from a bleach bottle & Golden nature books. We spent our summers chasing wild flowers butterflies & insects in the fields. Mine are Chickadees & Kestrels. I am fascinated by the Chickadee quilt. Thank you for these moments you blog about. Ordinary days about extraordinary moments.

[Back to Top]