Although their own kids have flown the coop, a Raleigh couple still shares their home with little ones each spring. As every Southerner knows, a front-porch fern is irresistible to certain nesting neighbors.
“They’re back,” Julie says, looking out the front door. Her voice is strained, and I can’t tell if she’s grinning or grimacing.
“The kids?” I ask, alarmed. “Already?” I’ve heard of boomerang parenting, but I thought that Markie and Jack had flown the coop for good.
“No, not them,” she fumes. “It’s those fern birds.”
Before you run off to grab a bird guide, please know that you won’t find “fern birds” in any birdwatching manual. Instead, it’s Julie’s special name for the Carolina wrens that nest each spring in her hanging ferns on our front porch in Raleigh. Every year, she hangs the ferns above the rocking chairs, and every year, the wrens arrive within days. They build a nest and raise chicks not five steps from the front doorbell.
During that time, you practically need a hard hat to walk out of the house because those birds will flush from the nest with a chittering screech like they own the place. I find that more endearing than irksome — which makes one of us — but once the nests are built and the eggs are laid, watering the plants does become a logistical issue. You can’t just hose them down. Instead, we carefully take down each fern and sprinkle the greenery with a water spout, taking care not to wet the eggs or drown the chicks. All the while, Mama is perched in the nearby maple or atop the boxwood, giving us the business.
“They don’t even appreciate what we’re doing for them,” Julie says.
“The kids?” I ask. “Or the birds? I’m getting confused here.”
To be honest, I look at the arrival of the wrens with a sense of wonder and gratitude, thankful that we’ve provided a safe haven, if only accidentally. I’ve long been fascinated by bird nests — and bird aeries and tree cavities and bank burrows. By all of the myriad places that birds use and construct and remodel during the spring breeding season. Each year, untold thousands of birds arrive in North Carolina after herculean migrations of hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Once they land, they have but a few weeks — if not days — to find a nesting site that will protect against the elements, provide warmth and insulation for eggs and nestlings, and turn away the prying eyes of predators. And then these birds have to build a home, mostly from scratch.
Hiding the nest isn’t their only strategy. Small, woods-dwelling red-eyed vireos build their nests like hammocks, slinging a dainty shell of grapevine bark, spiderwebs, and rootlets between the slenderest twigs near the ends of branches. Few predators can slink that far out on a limb. Also called the “preacher bird,” a single red-eyed vireo sings as many as 20,000 songs a day. I can’t but wonder how Julie would like it if a pair of those showed up in the front porch eaves.
In the Sandhills, red-cockaded woodpeckers dwell in the cavities of living pine trees. photograph by Todd Pusser
Red-cockaded woodpeckers, an endangered species, carve cavities into the heartwood of old-growth longleaf pine trees. Instead of hiding its nest from predators, like many songbirds do, this woodpecker booby-traps the tree by drilling resin wells around the trunk, both above and below its new home. In time, the tree oozes so much pine resin that it coats the entire trunk like melted wax on a candlestick. That resin gums up the belly scales of one of the woodpecker’s primary predators — snakes. It’s the avian version of Home Alone.
And one of my favorite birds, the kingfisher, doesn’t build a nest at all. Instead, these stream-loving birds burrow into the high mud banks along creeks and rivers, excavating a long tunnel up to six feet deep, over the course of one to three weeks. They lay their eggs in a small chamber at the end of the burrow. No nest, no comfy lining of cattail fluff or downy feathers. A rough start, if you ask me.
Not so the wrens of Everett Avenue. They’ve got it made, with a deck roof and a customized bird bath every few days thanks to Julie and me. It’s part of the Carolina wren’s approach to life: These birds seem to be attracted to human dwellings, and they’ll hang their hats just about anywhere. They’ll build a nest in a flowerpot or a mailbox, and they don’t give a hoot how often you shoosh them away. They’ve been found in boots and even the pockets of coats left dangling on the back stoop. And they’ll make a home out of practically anything they can fit into their beaks: grass, reeds, strips of bark, pieces of moss, candy wrappers, string. They’re fond of adding a bit of bling to the crib with pieces of cast-off snake skin. But they’re not trying to keep up with the Joneses. Give them a dry spot and a decent view, and they’re good with the basics. I like that approach.
Redeyed vireos construct nests that hang like hammocks. photograph by WILLIAM LEAMAN/ALAMY
Still, their industriousness can be a bit much. In 1946, a pair of researchers logged 250 hours watching a pair of Carolina wrens build a nest and raise their young on a sleeping porch near Little Rock, Arkansas. Construction on the house got off to a slow start — which seems the case no matter the species. But once the foundation was laid, the wrens went into a nest-building sprint. In a two-hour burst of construction zeal one morning, the male wren brought in 205 loads of dead leaves, dry grass, oak catkins, and twigs, while the female contributed 104 loads. That’s an average of 1.2875 nest-building trips per bird per minute. In and out, in and out, every trip with a mouthful.
When I bring this up to Julie, she’s unimpressed.
“Yeah,” she snorts. “And all the while, I’m just trying to get to my car in peace.”
OK, she didn’t really snort. I have to be careful here. I don’t want to sound like a better person than Julie. I would never think such a thing.
I’m just a better bird person.
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