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The Skinny Orphan Part 3

Sunday, May 30, 2021

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It's disarming when a tiny blobby baby bird whose eyes aren't even open becomes so conditioned to your attentions that it begs when it hears your voice. I didn't even whistle--just spoke to these birds. We're at the Hendershot box with its cushy deer hair nest, and in it are four original babies plus two fosters--Ritchie and Eddy (named for the boxes from which they came). 

Here, Eddy, the smallest of the bunch of six I took in, hollers for food when I come to feed them on April 25. He's the lone survivor of a brood of six abandoned the day they hatched, April 21. I fed these two orphans at home for three days, then installed them in this box, where the foster parents are taking good care of them.

               

He's alive, but he's not catching up fast enough to his siblings. I know I need to make another plan. I happen to have one box (Warren 2) where a female has been steadfastly sitting on a clutch of five eggs for 20 days. The normal bluebird incubation period is 14 days. Those eggs aren't going to hatch. 


Just to make sure, I candle them with a flashlight. 

This is a fertile bluebird egg after 11 days of incubation. There's a big gas space, and red blood vessels, and a big dark mass that is the developing chick.


This is one of the five eggs from the Warren 2 clutch after 20 days of incubation. Yellow yolk, clear albumen: Nothing going on. 


I feel bad for the Warren 2 female, but her life is about to get more interesting. I decide to replace those infertile eggs with one skinny Miracle Baby, the one survivor of the ill-fated brood of six abandoned on their first day of life. He's going to go from #6 to NUMBA ONE!!


             


Curtis rides along for my otherwise lonely bluebird rounds. It's so nice to have a sentient creature along who understands what all this means to me. 
He's got a tremendously strong prey drive. Look how his understanding of the situation totally overrides his instinct to snap up that helpless little thing. 


           

On the afternoon of April 25, I installed this skinny little chick into the box with its valiant but fruitlessly sitting mother. She was in for a surprise when she returned to sit on her eggs. I removed a couple of the infertile eggs to make room for him. That chick's life was about to get a whole lot better.

 Look at him just 24 hours later, the afternoon of April 26!!! One day of loving care as Only Baby in Warren 2, and he's plump and warm and presumably very grateful.








Bluebird Ambulance: Part 2

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

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In a little meadow next to the Eddy's home, there's a bluebird box that was put up and maintained by my late friend Jeff Warren. It hadn't been on my regular route to check. On this snowy morning, I thought I'd better open it up. Imagine how I felt on finding six day-old bluebirds, just hatched and already cold to the touch, abandoned by their mother. At first, I couldn't imagine why she didn't give it more of a try than that, but I have to guess that she knew she couldn't find the right soft caterpillars to feed them in the snow. Ahh it was awful to see them just born and already dying. I couldn't stand it. I took them in and put them in the Igloo, which had three hot water bottles going full bore inside.

It took a few hours for them to pink up and get happy, but by that afternoon, they were doing a lot better.
Especially look at the huge one at the bottom of the frame here--that's the Ritchie baby, found alone and immobile, that I warmed up in my bracubator. Well, they all took turns in there, all day long. 



              

The next day, I slipped the Ritchie orphan into the Hendershot box, with four other babies who had never been abandoned by their parents. For obvious reasons, it works better if the disadvantaged baby is a bit older than the host brood. You can see his big ol' head on top of the stack. I fed them all some bug omelet--I'd been feeding the host brood all through the cold snap anyway. I wanted to get the Ritchie baby into the care of bluebirds ASAP, as I was in over my head and it was all I could do to keep all seven of them warm and fed.


The Hendershot nest is made mostly of whitetail deer hair, thanks to a newly occupied hunting cabin right next to it. Carcasses aplenty, strewn here and there. :/
You may have noticed the dearth of deer photos in my blogposts in the past two years. This is not a coincidence. The old gang has been hard-hit, and I mourn them. On the upside, I'm finding more interesting plants in the forest understory than I have in decades. I don't think this is a coincidence either.


Out in my meadow, the five week-old babies I'd been feeding egg food through the cold snap were looking thrifty. By far the oldest on my trail (she had eggs by April 1!), they have a great set of parents who know to look to me for food when things get tough. I wish it were always as easy as leaving bowls of mealworms on the box tops, but you can't do that until the babies are at least 8 days old--they can't digest the chitin on the worms. So I'm stuck with hand-feeding them in their nests until they're older than Day 8. 


Meanwhile, I'd found another of my late friend Jeff Warren's old boxes with a likely host brood in it. I slipped two of my foster babies from the six-chick brood into the Whipple run box. 


This should have worked, but it wound up not succeeding. The next time I checked, the two foster babies were gone, tossed out by the host parents. They weren't nearly as strong as the host babies, and it was still very cold, after all. Ah well. You win some, you lose some. 

On that same afternoon, I drove two more chicks to far-flung boxes in friends' yards. It was a long shot, but I was out of same-age broods. Neither of those took, either. 

Of the seven I took in in the snowstorm, one died right off, and only two of the remaining six wound up being successfully fostered.  But two is better than none, and I learned a lot about caring for newly hatched bluebirds. I learned that it is way beyond my capabilities. They're so much better off with bluebirds! Especially at that tender age. Give me a three or four day old chick, and I'm good. But not Day 1 or 2. 


I wound up putting the two strongest of the babies I'd taken in into the Hendershot box, lined with deer hair. This photo from April 23 evening shows the big-mouthed Ritchie baby and the small Eddy baby (lower) begging, along with four host babies. I didn't want to burden any pair with six in this weather, but I was subsidizing them several times a day, and I had a plan for that small Eddy baby once the weather turned warmer.

I know this is like a novel with lots of confusing characters walking in and out. I'm doing my best to make it all clear. I keep copious and careful notes about where each nestling came from and which box had what age chicks. In the evening, I'd get my notebooks and strategize on where and when I might place orphans. 

When I meet people who have many dozens or maybe even hundreds of bluebird boxes to check and care for, I know that we are doing two very different things, operating at different levels. On one hand, having lots of boxes would give me more choices when it comes to fostering babies. On the other, a snow in late April or freezes in May would be exponentially more disastrous and crushing. I'm trying to strike a balance, knowing myself as I do, and knowing that I will drop everything to save tiny lives. I dream of decent spring weather, of Aprils and Mays when I don't have to live in apprehension and stress. 2022, I'm looking at you.

More to come...



Big Old Bluebird Tale

Sunday, May 23, 2021

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  “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was one of the formative books of my youth. It was the first book I'd ever read that celebrated being outdoors and noticing things in the immediate, abundant and joyful way I experienced them. It was a journal, condensed; it was a reaction to things seen, felt, lived, in the here and now. I fully ascribe to her sense of urgency here, and it's frustrating to have to hold back.

In spring, I have ever so much trouble keeping up with writing. So much is happening, and each thing, each day, it seems, could be its own book. I collect and journal and record and photograph and there's just so much to do, managing 80 acres and keeping this house in repair and really, just experiencing everything wonderful about living here, that my time runs too short to write much. If only some of the wild bloom and song could be sprinkled through November-February, so I could have time to write about it!

I've been messing about with bluebirds all spring, "helping" the birds nesting in my boxes here and there in my highly interventionist way, and I've learned gobs more about them. That is saying something, because I've been messing about with bluebirds since 1982. What I've learned is all so big and fascinating and wonderful that I've had trouble throwing a rope around it to write about it, but I have kept careful notes in my journal and bluebird notebook and I am trying to summarize all that's happened. Bluebirds--and all birds--always surprise me. My bluebird trail is a big old laboratory and I am the mad scientist.





It’s hard to overemphasize how much one snow in late April can screw things up for the bluebirds I tend, and for me. I have been paddling as hard as I can to keep up with the flow of events that have rolled out from one little cold snap, one little dump of snow on green leaves and nestboxes full of eggs and chicks. It's mid-May as I write, and I'm still tracking the chicks I worked with in the last two weeks of April. 


 

It was already shaping up to be a tough spring. On my modest trail of 18 boxes, bluebird pairs were down by half—no doubt because the winter of 2020-21 was so cruel down south, where they migrate to get away from such weather. A freeze like the Deep South saw, with snow and ice in south Texas, must kill a lot of wintering bluebirds. 

 

As the light slowly grew on the dawn of April 21, I was stunned to see two inches of snow coating everything. Snow on green leaves is one of my least favorite sights. I wanted so badly to stay under the covers and hold Curtis close, but I had to get up. Before my work started, I walked out the orchard to photograph dogwoods in the snow. Sourly, I observed that snow on white dogwoods just looks like more snow. I took photos anyway, and I’m glad I did, because they’re quite beautiful, now that I’m not facing days of hard labor thanks to that beautiful snow. 

 

See, what happens when it snows on April 21 is that the insects bluebirds depend on are suddenly and unequivocally unavailable. That means that adults will hardly be able to feed themselves, much less their new chicks. Bluebirds have no other choice than insects for baby food. So, realizing it’s useless to even try to find them, some pairs will abruptly desert their nests. 

 

Ten of my boxes were occupied, one by Carolina chickadees still building a nest, and nine by eastern bluebirds. 

There were chicks in six, and eggs in three of those bluebird nests. It’s not a huge deal for a female bluebird to sit out a cold spell on her eggs. She's got nobody to feed but herself, and her mate helps with that. She’s got a snug nestbox, a thick grass nest, and her own body heat to keep them warm.

It was the six boxes of chicks I was worried about. The brooding female can keep them warm, but without food, they won’t survive. 




 

So it was that I came in from snow photography and set straight to work in the kitchen, mixing up some bug omelet. I gathered my bent forceps, tissues, water, eyedropper, nestbox notebook, and fixed up a picnic cooler with hot water bottles and a makeshift tissue nest. Did I have everything? I hoped so. I opened the meadow box and was relieved to find five hungry six-day old bluebirds. I took the nest from the box, sheltered it as best I could with my body, and quickly fed the chicks to repletion with warm bug omelet. I stuffed the nest back in the rapidly cooling box and trotted back to the house, allowing the female bluebird to return and settle back on her chicks. No photos--it was all I could do to get them fed in the freezing cold wind, and put back in the box, without trying to record the moment. 


This is one of the easier boxes to deal with. It's close to my house, and all I had to do was pop out, walk a few hundred yards, and feed the chicks three times a day as long as the weather stayed frigid. Was that easy? No. But it was easier than having to drive to do it. I got in the car and set out for the closest box with chicks, at the old Ritchie place. Here's what I'd found back on April 18: 




This morning, April 21, an ominous silence greeted me at the Ritchie box. In the nest were two unhatched eggs and a three-day-old chick, cold and still as death. Death, in fact, was all that lay ahead for this poor chick. It might already be too far gone. I turned it over in my hand, felt it for any sign of life. 



        



I picked it up and moved its legs and wings. It wasn’t stiff, so it might not be dead. Without even thinking about it, I dropped the chick down the front of my shirt, into the warm pocket of what amounts to my cleavage. Careful not to squish the chick with the seat belt’s shoulder strap, I headed my car toward the township road where the rest of my nestboxes waited to be checked. I checked a box that could have chicks—still eggs. Heaving a sigh of relief, I pressed on to the next stop. As I neared it, I felt a stirring on my chest. Was it just my imagination, or was that stone-cold chick squirming? 

              


Agog, I reached into my shirt and brought the chick out. Once yellowish and blue, its skin was flushed with pink, and it was moving weakly. However many times I deploy the bracubator, I will never quite get over the magic it can do. I never tire of feeling life come back into a tiny bird, lying so close to my heart. I crooned to the little thing, wiped a tear away, and put it back in my bra to cook awhile more. I had more boxes to hit, and a heavy day with three appointments in town besides. It's kind of weird how busy and hard life can become for someone who loves birds like I do. I feel responsible for them to an abnormal extent.


My charge safe within its little pocket, I fought my way up a steep snowy bank to a nestbox put up by my late friend Jeff Warren. It wasn’t really part of my trail, but I felt I had to check it anyway, to see if anyone needed help. I was shocked to find six—SIX!! newly hatched chicks, barely alive and nearly as cold as the first one. Their mother was nowhere to be found. Oh, no. No no no. I placed them in a grass nest in the picnic cooler, which was near 100 degrees inside thanks to the hot water bottles. 

 

This was a fine kettle of fish. I’d gone from zero to seven bluebirds to care for in less than 15 minutes.

 

As luck would have it, I had deliberately scheduled this Wednesday with three appointments in town, reasoning that I wouldn’t be able to do much orchard clearing or lawnmowing if it was snowing. It hadn’t occurred to me when I scheduled this day that I might be busy saving bluebird lives. 

 

Well, they would just have to come to town with me. I had food for them. All I had to do was find more hot water along the way. This proved to be easier said than done. It came home to me that grocery store bathrooms almost never have hot water in the bathroom sink, which is kind of gross when you think about it. I finally found some reasonably hot water at an Indian restaurant, where I ordered two takeout dinners for myself, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to cook in the next few days. The cooler had lost almost all its heat when I finally replenished it in the restaurant’s restroom. I also fed the babies there. You do what you must. 

 

It was a hectic day. I had several out of body moments, one in the lounge at the auto repair shop, where I barely suppressed laughter as I thought how surprised Larry the Mechanic would be to know that, as he explained about the possible cause of my blinking dash lights, I had six newborn bluebirds squirming away in my bra, each one stuffed full of bug omelet. I hoped there was no security camera. I can only imagine what it all would look like on security video. Phoebe planted that idea in my head, and it made me laugh. I needed the laugh, with the day I was having. 


All this thanks to a couple inches of snow on April 21. 

 

More snow fallout in the next installments. 



Messages from Bill

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

22 comments

           One of the hard things about losing someone is that you keep thinking they're going to get back in touch with you--that you're going to get a message here pretty soon. But you listen and watch and stay open, and though they're on your mind so much, the messages mostly never arrive. You have to slowly let go of that thought that you're going to hear their voice or get a strong feeling that they're near. I guess thinking and hoping that that might happen is one way we forestall grief, hold off the emptiness.

   And then there are the days when things happen. You let yourself think that you've just gotten a message, that you're still accompanied, that there might still be a connection.

  The whole time I've lived here--29 years now--I've maintained a "yard list" of all the birds that have flown over, stopped by, bred, or visited this sanctuary. New additions have slowed to a trickle, but I have to say that the species I'm adding now are the coolest of the cool, and that makes up for the years between new additions. Bill was always prognosticating on the next species we were going to get. Me, I'm pretty Zen about it. What shows up, shows up. But oh, the thrill of discovery! The surprise! 

 On May 10, I went out to feed the bluebirds in the yard and the meadow. Both pairs are feeding fledglings now, and I have been subsidizing them once a day, early on each freezing-cold morning. I figure it's hard enough to feed four or five fledglings without temperatures starting out in the 30's every morning. I was leaning against the garage, watching the bluebirds through binoculars, when I saw something that looked like a dark stick in the middle of the meadow.  

 It was a shorebird, and it wasn't a woodcock or a killdeer. It wasn't even a Wilson's snipe, which was species #188 on May 2, 2013. It wasn't a black-bellied plover (#182, May 18, 2006). It was a solitary sandpiper, and it was species #198 for the sanctuary! 

It was poking around looking for food in the little swale that Bill always said would be perfect for a pond. He and I had quite a few discussions about whether making a pond was even feasible. I maintained that the sandy loam there was the wrong soil to hold water, and furthermore that there wasn't enough runoff to fill it, much less keep it wet long enough to even raise a tadpole. I still think that. I go back and forth, back and forth. I would LOVE to put in a shallow frog pond, to serve as a vernal pool for all the wonderful amphibians we have. But I just don't think there's sufficient water, and I'm sure the soil is too permeable for this wonderful notion to work. So now I'm thinking about how much a liner would cost, because I'm still thinking about it.

Here's a little digiscoped video (I just hand-held the phone up to the scope's eyepiece, so it's pretty shaky) of the solitary sandpiper messing about in Bill's little wishful pool. 

            

                  

That gracious and beautiful visitor stayed long enough for me to charge the house and grab my scope and long lens.


Solitary sandpipers are such pretty birds. They have a constellation of stars flung across a dusky back, a nice white eye ring, and a long, tapered shape that is distinctive. They bob and weave like an oversized spotted sandpiper, but they aren't quite as compulsive about it. More elegant, more restrained.
 
This was an amazing thing to see, walking right next to Bill's grave. Did he send it to me?
 
 
The sandpiper wasn't saying. It took flight with a three-part rolling trill and arrowed out, to disappear over the northeast horizon. 
 
 
I was so glad I was there to see that. It would have been so easy to miss it. And hearing its wild woodland call over the meadow made my day.
 
I came back inside from watching the sandpiper, sat down at my drawing table, and glanced out, as I do 5,000 times a day, to see this...


Who came up with this design? Is there a flashier bird in the world than a red-headed woodpecker? Durn thing looks like a stuffed toy out there!
It occurred to me that I had just come in from seeing a brand new species right by Bill's grave, and now here was his favorite bird, flying and hitching around like it owned the yard.

Perching like a hieroglyph on the feeder post

 
Using all the feeders, as red-heads will..they are fearless, inventive and inquisitive birds


Speaking of inventive, this is how I feed sunflower hearts now that tube feeders have been taken out of service. The mesh, intended for black oil sunflower seed, is too small to admit the new improved fatter shelled seeds, but it's perfect for the hearts! No ports to spread house finch disease--it's working well! I had sidelined this feeder because black oil sunflower wouldn't fit through the mesh, but it's back in service now.

 

Little character was shuttling peanuts, one by one, to storage in the crevices in a telephone pole out in the yard.

Making the place ring with its churring growl, kerr kerr kerr!

With the solitary sandpiper and the red-headed woodpecker visiting on the same day, I had the feeling that Bill was reaching through the veil. Phoebe's immediate response: "He's saying BUILD THE DAMN POND, WOMAN!"



Yeah, well, I still have to think about it for awhile. Ohio can be pretty stingy with rain in the spring and summer. I just tipped ten gallons of rainwater into the two tadpole puddles I'm tending now, which are full of all the American toad eggs I saved from the driveway! With all the rain we got last week they were still actively drying up, and they're in straight clay, in the shade. Hard times for frogs and those who lug 40-pound jugs of water to their squiggly offspring. I take them out in the garden cart, three at a time. It's all I can do to hold the cart back with 120 pounds of water in it as we go down the steep hill. Do I really want to sign on to a large vernal pool all the way out the meadow? Kinda thinking I have enough to care for now...

But Bill, I just wanted you to know I got your messages, and your beautiful messengers. Thank you for sending them. We miss you more than ever.

 

Dogwood Victory Garden

Monday, May 10, 2021

5 comments

 



Even as I write, the dogwoods are greening, the leaves are growing each day, covering the aging white bracts that so enchanted me for weeks. I am hurrying, hurrying this spring. It's all so rich and there's so much to be seen and listened to and learned. In April and May, life itself is a race, sometimes thoroughly exhausting, just trying to take in all the wonder. Add house and grounds maintenance to that, and I feel I am in constant motion. Someone said I'm like a shark, have to keep swimming to stay alive. Yes. Like a shark. 

I have to share these photos before the dogwoods drop all their bracts. I went out the evening of April 20 to shoot--the sky had just cleared and the cumulus clouds mimicked the floating clouds of dogwood blossoms. 


Curtis Loew loves taking these several times daily peregrinations out the orchard. He moseys along, usually in front of me, taking in the third dimension of smells as well as the sights and sounds I am able to enjoy. 



It was a most perfect evening--in the 70's, with a soft, gentle breeze. We meandered through the best dogwood passages slowly, spinning around to take them in from every angle. The cloud shapes echoed the puffs and platters of dogwood blossoms. It was like walking into a Maxfield Parrish painting.



This is what I've worked for, this is what I continue to work for--free dogwoods, floating. Dogwood waves breaking in the air, with nothing to stop their curling fall.


As much as I anticipated dogwood bloom this spring, it was so much more wonderful than I'd ever hoped. It was a visual spectacle, all the sweeter because I had freed almost every tree from piles of strangling honeysuckle and rose canes. I'd personally twisted those vines off their scarred trunks and limbs, gritting my teeth and smiling as I did it, thinking of what it would feel like to take in these sights. But still, they were so much lovelier than I had imagined.

In the morning, a sherbert like mix with blooming redbud and I am swooning with delight.


The peek of redbud at the end of the path...


Free open passages to walk without ducking or struggling; free trees with the breeze blowing in between them. My summer office, almost ready for occupancy. 


Phoebe and Liam got to be here for the start of the bloom, and for that I'll always be grateful. We resolved that they should try to be home each spring for this. Dogwood Bloom, our sacred family holiday.


For this, I cut the olive and rose; for this, I make the giant brushpiles; for this, I burn them. 
For this, I learned to wield a chainsaw, and that feels like a big thing to me. I feel powerful, indomitable, strong. I don't need to wait for anyone to help me now. For a woman alone in the world, that's big.


There is so much more to do. I will always be doing this, for as long as always may be for me. I know it isn't nearly long enough.

I so wish I'd started earlier, so I could have been living out here all this time.


But we start when we are ready, and not before.
If Bill were still here, I'd doubtless still be hoping that he'd come over and do a little chainsawing now and then. I'd never have hired the Amish crew to clear out the deadfalls and open the paths so I could get through to attack the work myself, never would have bought my own saw. I'd have been hoping, and none of this would have or could have happened. Life and death are strange that way. Sometimes it takes the death of someone you love to force you to realize you are capable. 

April is strange, too. This was my wakeup on April 21, the morning after I wandered the orchard in a T-shirt, smiling ear to ear. 


I realized that snow on white dogwoods just looks like more snow.


I knew the dogwoods would shrug it off. And they did, with not a mark or a wilt.


Everything came back just fine. I enjoyed the snow overlay on green for as long as it lasted, which was about six hours. Well, "enjoyed" isn't exactly the right word, but I took it in, even as I was dealing with the consequences of a late April snow event in other bluebirdy realms of my life.


Ain't it wonderful? Here:


 and gone:


The poison ivy has finally leafed out, which means I must stop for the season my mano-a-mano fight with invasive vegetation. I'm spot-spraying it in the interest of free access, as I continue to spot-spray the stumps of Russian olive and carpets of honeysuckle, and the small but countless tufts of multiflora rose re-growth. If I don't, all this hateful crap will simply come back, and after a year and a half of intensive clearing work, that would be a crying shame. Much as I hate to use any chemicals, I'm thrilled to say it looks for the moment like I'm winning this war, at least in one old ridgetop orchard somewhere in Ohio.

 Rather, the dogwoods are winning, and all native plants are winning. I keep finding amazing things coming up that I've never seen out there before. Onward we go, beating a path, ever beating a path, making strikes for the good and native against the horrid and invasive. 


 

Making a Chickadee's Mattress

Monday, May 3, 2021

5 comments


I have been so very busy with bluebirds of late...have left some teasers about fostering orphans on Instagram and Facebook, and I'm sorry about that, but the story is still unfolding and I am learning so much! I hope to pass it along soon--I've been keeping careful notes. Today, with work and springtime and grounds and house maintenance all smashing me, I don't have time for a bluebird story so I'll tell you a little chickadee story. I haven't been to the grocery store for two whole weeks, had to dig out a frozen pizza last night. But a Science Chimp has to blog!

I have had a pair  of Carolina chickadees nesting for the past few years in a tiny slot box along my driveway. I suspect it's the same female at least, because she has a habit of building a nice, deep, soft nest, then digging allll the way down to the floor of the box until she's clean out of nesting material. Let's call her Digger.

There's something about knowing this bird, and knowing she is going to do this every year, that brings me a little glow inside. Mostly because I love knowing it's her, in all her quirky sweetness, and because I always helping out.


I peeked in Digger's nest on April 18 and there were six beautiful tiny eggs. To the untrained eye, all looks well. 


Because my eye is trained, I could see, even in the dim interior of the box, that the eggs were in a peculiar order and spaced much too far apart for efficient incubation.  And why is the background so dark? No no no. She's laid them on the bare wood floor of the box again!

To confirm, I lifted the nest.  Mm hmmm.  Welp, we have to do something about this situation, and fast! Baby chickadees, born on hard bare wood, are at certain risk of splayed leg joints that could make for severe disability as they grow.  Luckily, I check my boxes often, and working backward, I see that I found this sorry situation on the first day of their incubation. 


I took the nest out. Oh for Pete's sake. The most important part of the nest--its cup-- is not even there!


Now, why would a bird as smart as a Carolina chickadee do something this apparently dumb, year after year?

I have thought about it, and I think it's the fault of the box. Designed to thwart house sparrows, who like a deep, dark nest cavity, this box was deliberately made shallow, with a slot opening to let in lots of light. A chickadee, like a house sparrow, feels safer in a deep nest cavity, so her instinct tells her to keep digging and building downward. She hits bottom way too soon in this shallow slot box, but by then it's too late, and she's laying her eggs. Poor wee thing. It's not her fault, it's mine. As usual. So it's mine to rectify.

Every spring, before the grass really gets green and growing, I go out and gather dried hair grass in my meadow. I believe the species is tufted hair grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, though I am always happy to be corrected. It's my favorite grass, not just because it is elegant and beautiful, but because it's so useful. I carefully curate the patches of it in my prairie meadow, and they have grown and expanded. I love it because its dried winter blades make such a fabulous bed for baby birds. I gather clumps of the dried stuff and put them in feed sacks for use all spring and summer long. When you are seriously into bird ranching, you value fine, soft bedding, because you wind up having to replace nests when they get infested by parasites, soiled, or wet. Mites, blowflies, nasty stuff, too much rain--all can make a nest sodden and stinky and downright dangerous, and I don't hesitate to jump in and replace such nests with fresh new grass, packed and wound tightly in the box.
 You don't want just any grass--it must be fully dried and cured, and it must be absolutely free of anything sharp, stiff, or pokey. 


So I gather dried tufted hairgrass by the armload before it rots in April. 



I cuddled the eggs in a temporary nest of hair grass while I worked.


I went to my handy sack of hair grass and pulled out a wad, from which I made a chickadee mattress. I added some dry moss to make it more like something the chickadee would make herself. I wadded and wound it tightly to try to foil The Digger, and installed it on the floor of her box.


I'm holding the original nest so you can see the giant hole in the bottom. The new Tempur-Pedic is installed in the shallow slot box.
You see the problem. She has nowhere to dig to!




It's so hard to believe there will be birds inside these fingernail-sized eggs, but there will! Just have to wait 12-14 days! I installed them on their new springy soft mattress and carefully replaced the original nest.


And on May 2, c'est voila! Three-day old Carolina chickadees, five of them, off to a much better start than they would have been otherwise. Lucky babies, lucky Digger, lucky me!


Happy spring! Help the birds.






















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