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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Birds prefer NATURAL nest material

Texas birds are attracted to places where they can easily get materials for making nests.  More and more, however, the fields and forests where they used to find it have turned into shopping centers and parking lots. So offering good nest material is almost as important as putting out fresh food.

The materials that birds use for nest-building can be almost anything that’s somewhat small, stringy and lightweight. Also, many nests are cemented together with mud, so it’s a good idea to have water and/or mud nearby. (It doesn’t have to be very conspicuous, or even in your own yard – birds will find it!) It’s not uncommon for a bird to make over a thousand trips with beaks-full of mud, twigs, grasses, leaves or whatever, just before nesting season (which varies with species, but is typically in spring).

One of the most popular natural materials is fur. We have two large dogs that seem to shed 365 days a year. Often we’ll comb them and save the fur. Then we put it in a container, such as a wire suet basket, and hang it from a branch.

Over the next few days we’ll see chickadees, cardinals, titmice, jays and many others pull out strands of the dog fur to take to their nests in nearby trees. Weeks later, if we’re lucky enough spot a nest, we’ll carefully inspect it and find several tiny eggs nestled in the dogs' fur. In the wild, this might be fur from foxes, bobcats, coyotes, goats, raccoons, cougars or even bears – but it’s 100% natural.  

Given a choice, however, wild birds often choose natural nesting material from plants. Most Texas birds look for tall, native grasses for nesting material. If you really want birds to nest in your yard, leave an area in tall grass (at least a foot), letting it stand through the winter. Robins, mockingbirds, several kinds of sparrows, meadowlarks, wrens, flycatchers and bluebirds use grasses enthusiastically. Some favorites are bluestem, indiangrass, muhly and gramma.  I’m certainly not talking about a typical north Texas lawn (usually bermudagrass or St. Augustine mowed to less than 2 inches). This type of lawn is a very uninviting and sterile habitat for almost all birds, who need tall, dense vegetation that they can flee to quickly when a predator appears.

Many lawns are also “treated” with pesticides, weed killers and chemical fertilizers, which can end up harming wildlife – or at least causing birds to go elsewhere.  (Remember DDT ?) Birds' nests are usually composed of bits of dead leaves and lots of small twigs, too.  So if you clean up your yard too meticulously, you may be depriving nearby birds of the natural nest material they seek and prefer.

Wild birds often use other plant items for nesting, too. Thin strips of bark from many types of trees native to the Denton area often end up in nests.  Young trees (like redbud, red cedar, eve’s necklace, roughleaf dogwood or cedar elm) are preferred by birds. Small chips of bark (from almost any tree, but oaks are a favorite) are often used to cushion the bottom of nests.

I’ve tried to put together a list of possible nesting material. It turns out, however, that almost anything is a candidate. And since birds were here in north Texas thousands of years before humans, the more natural a material is, the more likely it is to be recognized by the area’s birds and used in a nest.



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