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Making a Chickadee's Mattress

Monday, May 3, 2021

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.


That – YOU – is/are just so amazing!

You’re fantastic

Awww, love that you fluffed up their nest!! We put two blue bird boxes up on our property late last season. I removed several undesirable nests. This year I am excited that bluebirds are nesting in one box and chickadees in the other!

You continue to totally amaze me. Your connection to nature is perfectly pure.
What you do warms my heart. I truly love all birds. And you always offer your best help.

A Guy From Indiana

Wow! Those eggs are so tiny, yet they hold precious life.

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