The Tangled Nest

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Baby Bushtits and Late Spring Birdlife

May 30th, 2010 · 10 Comments ·

Yesterday my friend Kathryn emailed a few photos of the freshly-fledged Bushtits in her plum tree.

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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.

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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.

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3373378684_92b54be53aBushtits 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.

birds, seasons, urban nature

10 Comments so far ↓

  • Kelly

    These are my favorite little birds. Now that I know what to look for, I want to see if I can find any nests nearby. I have several bushtit sightings in and near my yard. Thank you!

  • cookie

    I know about cheek to cheek dancing, but the thought of eye to eye cavorting with bushtits blows my imagination. On the other hand, to be nestled in on that cushiony bed sounds pretty inviting.

    Cookie

  • David Williams

    Nice story especially the use of Y’all and smooshed.
    Keep up the fine wordsmithing.
    DBW

  • Sharon

    I just finished reading your book Rare Encounters With Ordinary Birds and was intrigued by the chapter about The Thrush and the Fairie. I found the Varied Thrush song on my Birding By Ear CD and listened for them this weekend on a camping trip on the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls, Washington. We were high in the mountains and heard them calling to each other all around us. One came within about 20 feet, but we never did see it. Such a beautiful eerie sound. I was waiting to be abducted by the faeries, but it never did happen. My husband heard one later in the day and asked, “Isn’t that the faerie bird?”

  • therese

    Found your article mid-winter (late Jan 2011) and am charmed. You’ve captured them so well. Here in Albuquerque NM in the foothills of the Sandias we have flocks of bushtits that often wander through our garden. I love the gentle swell of their soft chirping and acrobatics on flowers, bushes, and small trees; and their straggly cameraderie. Last summer, one pulled out from the flock and landed on a table edge to look me in the eye, while hanging precariously. Couldn’t have been for food – must have been just curiosity. A moment later she was gone, blending in with her many buddies.

  • Kathi Province

    Thanks so much for this. I so love your work. One thing of note re bushtits; because of their easily observed nests, they are particularly susceptible to predators, such as our beloved crows. If you do happen to spot a nest, it is a good idea to ignore it, or at least be surreptitious in your admiration of it, so as not to draw attention to the little darlin’s, who are readily consumed with relish by jays and other corvids. (I suspect they enjoy them even without the relish.)
    Thanks for your excellent work, Kathi Province

  • Clairissa

    We found a bushtit on the ground in the drive way it has some feathers and can fly but not very well. I have no idea where the nest could be what should I do?

    • lyanda

      Hi Clarissa. It’s normal for baby birds to jump out of the nest before they can fly well–if it is feathered, and can fly a little bit, then it probably wouldn’t stay back in the nest anyway. The parent birds should continue to care for it–but we need to stay completely away from the bird for that to happen. They won’t come if people are sneaking in to check on the chick all the time. If the baby is in an unsafe place, you can move her to the base of a nearby tree. It’s OK to touch a baby bird, the adults cannot smell very well, and will not reject the chick–that is a myth. Good luck. It is always wonderful to find so much compassion for other creatures.

  • dragana sandoval

    My question is why did my bushtit abandon their nest. There were so many in my backyard, and they were making such a great little nest right outside my window in one of the jasmine bushes. It’s been about 10 days now that we haven’t seen any activities nor any of them in the whole yard!
    So sad and bummed :-\
    What scared them away? I thought they liked our yard :-(

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