Foam Lake Birding No. 191

No. 191
            This article was supposed to feature a lengthy article about Robins but circumstances delayed it to the point that it is too late for this year.  Robins are already nesting and some even have young.  Perhaps next spring.
            As far as nesting goes we have a good variety of nesting birds in our yard this year.  We definitely have Chipping Sparrows, Purple Martins, Tree Swallows, House Sparrows and House Wrens.  We also appear to have Yellow Warblers, Brewers Blackbirds and Robins nesting somewhere but I have not found the nests yet.  We also have a pair of brown Thrashers and Catbirds regularly visiting our yard.  Nesting?
            The one big surprise is that we have a pair of Chickadees nesting in one of our birdhouses.  Although many magazine and television articles state that Chickadees will readily nest in birdhouses they seldom do.  In addition Chickadees prefer to nest away from man.  These Chickadees seem to have broken all the rules.  In fact this is the first instance of a Chickadee utilizing a birdhouse that I know of.  The nesting process started about three weeks ago with the Chickadees seemingly “testing” the suitability of the birdhouse.  This evaluation period was followed by a flurry of activity with the Chickadees carrying nesting material, mostly feathers, into the birdhouse.  Our yard work did not seem to bother them.  No matter what, it is a pleasant surprise and I hope that they are successful in raising a family.  There is nothing as cute as a family of juvenile chickadees flitting in the trees. 
            This week’s pictures are of a Chickadee flying out of the birdhouse and another of a Chickadee sitting in the opening  and looking out. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 190

No. 190
            Wrens and Tree Swallows notwithstanding The bird most sought after by residents of both towns and farms alike is the Purple Martin.  It is one of the few birds that nests in colonies which endears it to people.  (See Article No. 9). 
            Although Purple Martins used to nest singly (in pairs) in abandoned woodpecker holes they do like to nest in colonies if at all possible.  In this respect they have been well aided by man and man alone – a welcome change from the doom and gloom of the negative effects of human activities on wildlife.  This was first done by the native inhabitants of the southern USA and Mexico by putting out groups of gourds suspended from a snag or on a pole.  Modern man has substantially improvised on the quality and quantity of housing available for the Purple Martin. 
          The most common is the multiroom birdhouse ranging from fewer than six rooms to more than fifty, although, twelve and sixteen are the most common.  To make one of these houses takes a good bit of building skill and even more patience.  Fortunately, there are many commercial ones available.  Depending on the materials used and the amount of ornateness, a 16 room birdhouse can be had for as little as $30.00 to well over a $1000.00.  The cheaper ones are usually made of aluminum or plastic; the more expensive ones are made of wood with fancy trim made of various coloured metals. 
           Another effective system is to hang several single room birdhouses in a group from a pole fitted with several cross arms from which to hang the houses.  Gourds (a type of pumpkin) can also be used but they do not grow in Canada so are more or less restricted to the southern USA and Mexico.  Because these single dwellings are hung on a short chain or wire they will swing a bit in a wind.  Like Tree Swallows, Purple Martins do not mind a moving birdhouse but House Sparrows and Starlings do not and avoid them.  Another great advantage of this system is that the number of houses can be increased or reduced as the need arises.  It is also easier to replace or repair a one room house than a multiunit one.  This system of many single houses suspended in close proximity to one anther is gaining in popularity. 
The size of the “living room” of the house should be about 8in. by 8in. by 6in. high.  The entrance should be about 2in. in diameter and positioned about one inch above the floor.  Perches are an option but not required.  However, a TV antenna type of perch mounted on top of the pole seems to be greatly appreciated by the martins that do like to perch high up.  In fact a discarded TV antenna would work very well and can stand up to some very severe weather.  The houses should be out in the open away from trees. 
            Then, one can only wait and hope.  We were lucky as we had a colony move within days of putting up our 12 room house (this week’s picture); others have waited for years and sometimes even then with no results.  Such is the way of Purple Martins.  If this is your first attempt, good luck with your forays into the world of Purple Martins.

Foam Lake Birding No. 189

No. 189
            The recent pleasant weather would indicate that spring is finally here although not quite barbeque weather the summer birds are definitely returning.  We have seen Ring Billed Gulls, Red Tailed Hawks, Juncos and Pine Siskins.  Now, I am waiting for the robins and swallows. 
            This week I want to take a brief look at bird houses for Tree Swallows.  The dimensions and materials used are the same as for wrens except the hole has to be 1.5 inches (32 cm) in diameter.  This allows the swallows to enter and exit with ease.  Unfortunately it also allows early nesting House Sparrows to utilize the house usually pre-empting the Tree Swallows.  
            One way to discourage House Sparrows is to hang the bird house instead of attaching it with screws or nails to a tree, pole or building.  In my experience only Tree Swallows will readily nest in a “swinging” bird house.  To dampen the amount of swing on windy days I attach a suspended weight to the bottom of the bird house.  I did just that last year only to have a wren nest in it and rear a brood.  The Tree Swallows chose another house that was in our yard. Very unpredictable but there is nothing wrong with that. 
            Unlike wrens Tree Swallows will occupy birdhouses that are set out in open spaces such as pastures and crop lands.  This also discourages House Sparrows as they do not like to be far away from trees and buildings.  As a bonus this placement also attracts Blue Birds.  The disadvantage is that the birds cannot be observed simply by looking out of a house window.  Steel (tin) cans cannot be used here as they will overheat and kill the young. 
            This week’s photos show two of our bird houses made specifically for Tree Swallows.  The lean-to is one that I built and painted by myself.  If I do say so myself it is a very attractive and functional bird house but no bird has built a nest in it since I put it up six years ago.  Meanwhile, the bird house that our granddaughter built as a school project last year was occupied with Tree Swallows within a week after it was put out.  Go figure!  The photo includes a picture of the aforementioned Tree Swallow sitting on a peg just below the entrance.  As mentioned above the hanging house that I put out for the tree Swallows was occupied by a House Wren.  Again, go figure. 

Foam Lake Birding No. 188

No 188
            Finally the crows are back – winter or not.  Also, I have seen several Rough Legged Hawks and, to my surprise, a lone Bald Eagle perched in a tree along the highway.  To date I have not seen any robins nor bluebirds.  Even the juncos are not back yet. However, they all should be here soon. 
            In any case it is that time of year when bird fanciers should be thinking of putting out birdhouses for the spring nesting season.  This is especially true if one has to build new houses for whatever reason.  Existing bird houses require much less time even if repairs are necessary. 
            Bird houses that have been occupied in previous years require very little effort to make them ready for the upcoming spring.  Some people feel that it is necessary to clean the bird houses every year.  If bird lice are a concern one need not worry.  Bird lice require a body temperature of nearly 40C to stay alive.  Even human body temperature (36C - 37C) is too cold.  Our frigid winters completely sterilize the nests.  One always has to keep in mind that all cavity nesters used to nest in abandoned woodpecker nests and nobody went around cleaning out those nests.  We cannot and perhaps should not apply human standards to birds.  They are not people with feathers.  After all they drink out of mud puddles. 
            For new bird house construction I will start out with the most common and easiest bird house to build.  Of all birds the House Wrens are the least finicky about their bird houses and most easily satisfied with anything that remotely resembles a bird house.  Dimensions can vary from 4” by 5” to 8”by 10” and everything in between.  A one inch hole is the perfect size as it allows the wren to get in and out of the house but excludes all other birds – especially House Sparrows.  The most common material is wood – usually scrap wood.  Wooden houses should be painted to preserve them.  Many commercially prepared bird houses are made of lightweight aluminum.   Aluminum is very good as it does not absorb heat and remains cool throughout the hot summer days.  Even larger steel(tin) cans can be used.  As kids my brothers and I would punch one inch holes in tobacco cans and tie them to trees.  They were always occupied by wrens.  Steel cans will heat up to dangerously high levels so care must be taken to mount them in good, day long shade.  The houses can be as fancy or as plain as one desires.  Either way the wrens will be perfectly happy. 
            It should be noted that wrens spend a great deal of time on the ground and therefore need good ground cover for protection.  A yard without shrubs, flowers and so on will make it very difficult to attract wrens. 
            This week’s picture of a wren on a dwarf cedar was taken just outside our solarium window.  The bird houses are of the three we have in our yard.  The dark (brown) house (no photo) is in our front yard and has had wrens almost every year since we put it up about 20 years ago.  The colourful one that we purchased last year stayed vacant.  The hanging house was set out two years ago in our back yard for Tree Swallows but a wren beat them to it.  I never got around to painting this house – maybe this spring.