Yesterday my friend Kathryn emailed a few photos of the freshly-fledged Bushtits in her plum tree.
That same day, I heard adult Bushtits chirping in our yard, and followed them to the lilac tree and our own little cluster of newly emerged Bushtits. I love how they huddle, all smooshed together in a little group. When I mentioned this to Kathryn, she said, “Yes, just like they must have been in their nest.” True, and wonderful to imagine, as Bushtits lay their eggs and grow their young in the loveliest hanging-basket nests, delicately woven of mosses, lichen, and spider webs. The inner chamber, where the eggs are laid, is lined with the softest possible things–animal fur and feathers–and the whole nest sways gently in the wind, like a cradle.
As nests go, they are relatively easy to spot: hanging instead of tucked into the fork of a branch; often quite low in the tree; and built in open woodlands, at forest edges, in suburbs, parks, and urban neighborhoods, where we regularly wander.
Even though they are so common here in the western states, Bushtits are sometimes tricky to identify. We are taught to notice the “field marks” on a bird–the colors, wing bars, eye stripes, tail shape, etc., that are clues to distinguishing it from other species. But of all the birds in the entire North American field guide, Bushtits are perhaps the most “field markless.” They are pretty much all brown, often described as “drab,” with no stripes or bars of any kind, just a vaguely lighter-brown breast and a longish tail. There is one interesting field ID trick with which you can amaze your friends: the adult female’s eye is light, the male’s is dark.
Bushtits are tiny, tiny, tiny, with a fabulous social structure. Excepting spring, when the birds pair up for nesting, you never see just one or two Bushtits. If you do see one in a shrub, look around–there will be a dozen, or three dozen, or more, all traveling as a little Bushtit organism, and if you spend some time watching them in action–their feeding acrobatics and constant movement as they glean small insects–you could never call them drab.
I’ve written before about how I prefer feeding birds with plants, rather than maintaining feeders. For Bushtits, I allow a few of the invasive fennels that flourish in our herb garden to grow to maturity, even though none of us like fennel. When the plants go to seed in the late autumn, they are covered with Bushtits and chickadees. Bushtits weigh almost nothing, and though the fennel fronds are thin and delicate, they don’t bend in the slightest when the Bushtits land on them. We bring dried fennel branches onto the deck, so we can watch the birds feed at close range through the kitchen window.
Y’all know I never miss an opportunity to deliver my favorite sermon, and the season is ripe for it: If you find a baby bird that has fallen to the ground, but can’t fly, please just pick it up and put it near its nest if you can find it, or on a nearby branch out of harm’s way. Settle the bird on the branch by covering its eyes lightly with your hand until it is calm. Softly remove your hand, and then leave. The adult birds will continue to care for their young. They cannot “smell human” on the little bird, and even if they could, birds are fabulous parents, and would not abandon their chick! Let’s work to dispel this myth…
Meanwhile, enjoy this season of wonderful bird behavior, where naive young are learning their way in the world, and protective adult birds are so bold and busy.
The nest and fledgling photos in this post are by Kathryn True, an incredible naturalist, educator, writer, and dear friend. Visit her website to see some of her work.
Thanks to Flickr users Rick Leche and judy h for adult Bushtit images.