The past month has brought lots of bird activity to my little patch of earth.
Most of the through-migrating birds (geese, cranes, many songbirds) have flown by on their way north.
Those birds calling this area home – some year round, some just during their breeding season – are engaging in the annual spring rites of hashing out who gets to live and nest where, and whether other birds are to be considered friend or foe. Many of their behaviors are related to defending territory for mating and nest building, then protecting their clutch and eventually their hatchlings until they’ve fledged.
Birds of a feather flock together.English proverb, traced to a 1545 work called The Rescuing of Romish Fox, written by William Turner: “Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”
I have just one bird nest box on my fence railing. It’s been there for over a decade. And as far as I know, it has always been occupied by Tree Swallows. I love them. Small and sleek, with iridescent midnight-blue backs, black wings and tails, and bright white bellies. Skilled fliers, they’re often described as the fighter pilots of the bird world.
Many evenings I enjoy sitting on the grass in the yard near the nest box, watching the Swallows fly, practicing their aerobatics, catching bugs as they go. And they seem to enjoy testing their bravery by swooping fast and close over our heads as the boys and I remain still, watching them. I don’t think they’re trying to shoo us away. They frequently watch calmly from the rail as the boys and I move through the yard, the boys often chasing a toy or each other. Used to us, they allow us to come close and they’re not camera shy. I think they’re just having their fun with us, using us as training targets for when they really do have to defend their nest. (Here’s a 2020 post about Tree Swallows.)
The Tree Swallows seem to tolerate the Robins and, on occasion, Quail who use the rail as a perch to better see what worms and bugs are in the lawn.
This spring, though, I noticed lots of female Mountain Bluebirds on my fence rail. I rarely saw a male – they’re easy to spot with their bright turquoise-blue feathers. The females are more understated, with just a hint of blue on their wing feathers and creamy-orange chests. It quickly became clear the females were eyeing the nest box.
The Tree Swallows were not happy.
Both Mountain Bluebirds and Tree Swallows are native species in North America, with overlapping territories. Both are tolerant of humans (and their dogs, at least in my yard), and nest in cavities, whether natural hollows in trees or boxes provided by humans. They compete for these valuable spaces every spring. The Mountain Bluebirds are slightly larger, and need more flyable space around their nest (300 feet vs 100 feet for Tree Swallows).
Mountain Bluebirds are Idaho’s state bird.
Mountain Bluebirds easily win the beauty contest between the two species. The males are visually stunning, bright flashes of blue that catch your eye, reminding me of the Wow! reaction I always had whenever I saw the amazing color of Paul Newman’s eyes, almost too beautifully blue to be real.
When Eastern Bluebird numbers were declining in the 1970s, a movement to provide them with nest boxes was created and spread across the country. When it was seen that Tree Swallows also liked the boxes, they became scapegoats for the low numbers of Eastern Bluebirds and were often killed.
As it turns out, Bluebirds (Eastern, Mountain and Western) and Tree Swallows can share space harmoniously if several nest boxes are placed near each other, with slightly larger ones attracting the Tree Swallows and leaving others for the Bluebirds.
I only learned about this competition for nest boxes this year. I hadn’t ever seen Mountain Bluebirds hanging about the nest box on my fence. This year there were several females showing up day after day, checking out the box, upsetting the Tree Swallows whom I sure felt their claim to be not only longstanding but inviolate.
I watched the Tree Swallows constantly dive bomb the Mountain Bluebirds anytime they perched on the fence, too close to the box, eventually persuading them to leave. But the Mountain Bluebirds would return the next day, and the next. This tension continued for weeks until the Tree Swallow pair ultimately succeeded in defending the nest box for another summer and the Mountain Bluebirds presumably found another place to build their nests.
After the Tree Swallows won the contest for the nest site, all was quiet in the yard as they went about mating (on the rail, in plain view – not shy, these tree swallows). I assume they now have a clutch of eggs in the box. They keep an eye on me whenever I mow near the box, but know I’m harmless. Most mornings I see one or both adults perched on the rail not too far from the box, chest feathers fluffed, preening, waiting for the early rays of sunlight to reach over the eastern ridges to slowly add some warmth to the morning air as it carries the songs of all the local birds.
This week, though, there has been added – and new to me – bird drama in the yard, brought by Magpies. The Tree Swallows have new foes.
Black-billed Magpies are familiar and entertaining birds of western North America. They sit on fenceposts and road signs or flap across rangelands, their white wing patches flashing and their very long tails trailing behind them. This large, flashy relative of jays and crows is a social creature, gathering in numbers to feed at carrion. They’re also vocal birds and keep up a regular stream of raucous or querulous calls.All About Birds
They’re beautiful birds, with their feathers striking contrasts of black, white, and a hint of shiny deep blue in their wings. Their heads and beaks are similar to Crows. Here in Idaho’s mountains, Magpies are one of the few birds staying through the winter. They’re noisy and social; you know when they’re about. (Click the link in the quote, above, then click on the Listen icon near the top of the page to hear their calls.) And because they’re a corvid, related to Crows and Ravens, they’re intelligent. Omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything.
Which means they occasionally feed on songbird eggs and fledglings.
No wonder my pair of Tree Swallows weren’t happy one recent morning when a group of Magpies decided to have a “discussion” in my yard, not far from the nest box. Actually, it sounded more like an argument among six of seven of the Magpies, so loud and unusual that it got my attention while I was inside at my computer at the other end of the house. I took these photos through the kitchen window before my presence spooked them. The argument started on the ground – a fight over a morsel of food? – but when they sensed me watching, some flew off while others flew onto the fence before joining the rest of the group across the field at the neighbor’s house.
Several minutes later, the Magpies were back, having another equally loud discussion in the portion of the yard I can see from my office window. I took this video (through the window) of two of them quarreling on the rail, quite close to and moving toward the nest box, provoking the defensive ire of the Tree Swallows who attacked from the air.
I wondered if a Magpie had managed to steal a Tree Swallow egg earlier, and that’s what I’d seen them arguing over on the ground in the yard? I’m not sure how that would work; the Magpies are so large, but maybe they can reach their head into the nest box and take an egg when the parents are both gone?
One thing Magpies and Tree Swallows have in common is a bad rap. Tree Swallows were once blamed for the decline in Eastern Bluebird numbers (and by extension, Mountain and Western Bluebirds). Magpies have been accused of being thieves (of bright, shiny objects) and of savaging other birds (eating songbird eggs and babies).
As this great BBC – Earth article explains, Magpies are innocent on one count, guilty on the other.
Love them or hate them for their behaviors, you can’t dispute that Magpies are beautiful when they fly, displaying their long feathers.
June has brought me three other unique bird observations.
The first involved a bat, in flight, at 11:00 am in the morning.
I didn’t notice it at the time. The dogs and I were walking on our usual valley road and I was taking photos. When I got home and edited those photos, I noticed something yellow and odd in the upper corner of one. Zooming in, I realized it had to be one of the common local bats, called (plainly) the Big Brown Bat. But why was this nocturnal creature out flying at 11:00 am? And where to? So strange.
A few days later, on June 16th, the boys and I were driving to a trail head for an early morning run. On the main road through our part of the valley I noticed three large birds, each perched atop a fence post. At first I wondered (hoped) they were Eagles but as I slowly drove by I saw they were Turkey Vultures. I frequently see them soaring way overhead as they search for something dead to eat on the ground, and sometimes I’ve seen them perched high in trees in the forest, but never on fence posts in the valley. After passing them, I turned the car around and re-approached slowly, taking photos from inside my car (please excuse the bug spots on the windshield) because I feared if I stopped and got out, they’d spook. As I got close, one left its perch and landed just a few feet away on another post. Then a second took flight, which caused the other two to follow.
They’re huge! Turkey Vultures have a six-foot wingspan, yet only weigh between two and four pounds. No wonder they soar so effortlessly.
Apparently Turkey Vultures are selective in what sort of carrion they eat: herbivores, as opposed to carnivores or omnivores. And while they won’t prey on living animals, I did wonder if they’d sensed a dead calf in this particular pasture, where I had noticed lots of wobbly newborns.
Finally, on June 26th I was startled when approaching the kitchen sink to see flashes of yellow at my hummingbird feeder. I’m so used to seeing (and hearing) hummers feeding that they’ve almost become a ho hum (pun intended) feature of my home landscape. None of them are bright yellow, though.
That morning, my hummingbird feeder became a Goldfinch feeder.
Again, please forgive the spots on the window. I was afraid if I tried to go outside for photos I’d scare them off, but they seemed quite content to watch me through the window, and weren’t camera shy.
Quick research informs me that, even though I’d never seen it before, several birds will visit hummingbird feeders, including Orioles, Finches, Sparrows, Woodpeckers, Thrushes, Titmice, Warblers, Mockingbirds, Grackles and Flickers.
Never a dull bird moment here.
I’m going to miss all of the birds I have learned to identify and enjoyed observing while living in Idaho, especially the Raven pair I was building a bond with, using the boys’ marrow bones and Conall’s voles as snow/ice-breakers (so to speak). Still, I’m excited to discover the bird life that awaits me in Vermont. I’m especially eager to see if there are Ravens near my new home, having read that they’ve only re-appeared in the state in the past twenty-five years.
(Note: I’m slowly adjusting to always capitalizing bird names. For most of my life, the common names of birds, mammals, insects, fish, etc., were not capitalized. Ornithologists have advocated for capitalization of official bird names for decades, reasoning, “It distinguishes a taxonomic species from a general description of a bird. Several species of sparrows could be described as “white-throated sparrows,” but a “White-throated Sparrow” is a particular taxonomic species.” IOC World Bird List, v11-1. The ornithologists won the argument, with Audubon magazine and other bird-oriented publications (beyond bird guides) adopting capitalization. So I, too, will capitalize, even though it looks odd to me and even though I’m sure I’ll slip up frequently as the transition goes from soft- to hard-wired in my brain.)
Feature image: Tree Swallow peering from the entrance to its nest box on my fence, June 5, 2021.