Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Reader asks for help in solving 'Grackle mystery'
One of our Kingston readers wrote in part: “I have a bird mystery and my mother suggested that I seek your advice. I have lived in the same apartment for about two-and-a-half years now. Chickadees, sparrows, purple finches, multiple pairs of cardinals and others frequent the feeder I keep in my small back yard. There is a lot of awesome bird activity all around our neighborhood; and I have even seen pileated woodpeckers, Eastern bluebirds, and other elusive, rare specimens up close and personal! But it is not the colorful, exotic birds that brought me to you; it is a grackle situation that has got me thinking.
“For the past two springs, a pair of grackles have nested in the small, circular vent above my second floor bathroom window. I am assuming it's been the same pair both years. Even though my apartment is one of several nearly identical town house style apartments all in a row, the grackles chose the vent above my bathroom window (as far as I can tell, no other birds nest in the other apartments' vents). They might have chosen mine because they really like to hang out in the tall pine tree directly across the way.
“It is always exciting when there is a bird's nest near one's house, but when the nest is in one's house, it is even more interesting. I can hear the birds scurrying around and vocalizing in there regularly. I have two playful, young indoor cats and you can imagine what a treat for them it is to see and hear the birds — but at the same time, it's almost a cruel tease.
“So that's where it gets sad: last year, a baby bird fell out of the vent and presumably died on impact when hitting the asphalt. Just yesterday, I arrived home from work to find not one but three dead baby birds on the parking lot beneath the vent. What's going on?
“I will also tell you I have seen hornets or wasps flying into the vent, could this have anything to do with it? My cats do climb up to the window and cling to the screen sometimes when they see or hear the birds. Although they can't get to the birds, is it making the adult birds panic and are they trying to move the babies? What about when I open the window and inadvertently startle them? Could the parents be rejecting the babies for some reason? Perhaps there are too many mouths to feed and that some have to go, so that the stronger ones can live? Maybe the babies died in the nest and the parents pushed them out. Even though the birds seem to have selected this vent repeatedly, is it possible that it's just not a good nest site, and it's already too late once they realize this? Could a rival bird or some sort of squirrel or chipmunk, have gone in and gotten rid of the babies? Thank you so much for taking the time to help me solve my grackle mystery! Sincerely, Caroline.”
In answer to the “mystery,” I suggest that the “grackles” really are European starlings. Common grackles are 12-1/2” in length, while starlings are 8-1/2”. Grackles normally build a rather bulky nest in trees, (they prefer pines) but not in an enclosure. Starlings most always build in a birdhouse or any cavity-type location as in this vent.
From our reader's selection of reasons for the babies to have been thrown out of the nest, I suggest they were dead and the parents did it, not directly because of the hornets or wasps, but because of blood-sucking insects or their larvae. Chipmunks, red squirrels, crows, and jays (and even grackles) do take baby birds from nests, but they carry them off for lunch. I doubt your cats, opening the window, or too many babies to feed, were a cause.
May I suggest a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the nest area, then covering the vent's outside area with a large, perhaps one-inch hardware cloth. That would still allow air to pass through the vent freely, but block out the birds and solve the problem in future.
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A Washington, NH, reader wrote in part: “We have a garage with an overhang that is supported by two protruding beams. Several years ago, a pair of robins built a pair of nests on top of the beams (under the overhang). They return every spring. It seems like some years they don't even migrate. At times they have been successful in rearing one or two chicks. In other years, bluebirds have destroyed the eggs. I have wondered if it might be good for me to remove the nests and let them start over and make new clean ones.”
I think the nests should be removed. In answer as to why robins did not eat worms mixed with dirt in a shallow pan beneath the nest, robins like to dig their own worms.
Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.
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