Tag Archives: nests

A letter to the broken hearted nest observer

Breeding season is often a hard time for the tender hearted among us. The joy of watching an animal construct a nest just to see their efforts cut short by predation is painful. Likewise, finding a dead chick is tough, and prompts many to ask how they could have prevented such loss and better protected them.

I appreciate the people that bring me these questions so much. That care so deeply they would put in the effort to seek out these answers from a scientist and spend their time doing what I suggest. These are good people.

But whether you’re asking how to protect birds from crows, or crows from other animals, my answer is always the same. As hard as it is to watch animals get eaten, it’s vital to remember that predation is what keeps wildlife wild. It’s what keeps ecosystems complex & beautiful.

When we get into the business of deciding that (native, natural) predators are bad, and attempt to take action against them, we are denying the very wildlife we want to thrive from facets of their identity that make them who they are. Prey communities are shaped by the predators that have historically hunted them, and vice versa. Whether it’s how cryptic the chick’s color pattern is, how many eggs the female lays, where they build their nests…not one corner goes untouched. It’s this very process that has made something so beautiful that we can’t stand to see it harmed. But for communities to function that death is essential.

Predation is the transfer of life and that life is a gift. It’s a gift that ensures the survival of another, and even if we don’t know that individual as well as the one we watched perish, it’s not for us to assert that it, or its offspring, deserves that gift any less.

On the other hand, finding a dead, otherwise unharmed, chick can feel less…purposeful. “Why was it out of the nest so early?” “I read to leave it alone and it died anyway…should I have stepped in?” “I feel so bad I couldn’t save it!”…These are common responses.

But while it’s true that baby birds do sometimes (rarely) accidentally get kicked out of the nest, it’s also true that it’s not always an accident.

Sometimes parents simply reject offspring for reasons that are not for us to know. And that is okay. Part of honoring their wildness is accepting that they know more than us about their own lives, and that if they choose to not to support a chick they have a reason. There are exceptions of course in cases of conservation concerns, but for most backyard circumstances it is okay to accept their choice without interfering. Even if it hurts.

So please, rather than shutting down those deep feeling you have for wildlife by intervening, lean into them. Teach your friends and neighbors and children to feel those deep feelings. Because it’s from that space that we can do best by wildlife, even if it’s the kind red in tooth and talon.

It’s from there that we can grow a culture of care and empathy that shows us that nature is a community and by thinking first of community and not of the individual, can we have the broadest reach. That planting native vegetation, and keeping cats indoors, and fighting to protect land and water, is the way to love wildlife. Not by choosing who deserves to eat and who does not.

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Filed under Birding, Breeding, crow conflicts, Death, Ecosystem, Wildlife

Everything you want to know about crow nests

Spring marks one of my favorite times of year.  Cherry blossoms abound, the rain smell sweet and the birds get busy putting their carpentry skills to good use. Starting early March, the silhouettes of crows with bill loads of timber or wads of soft material dot the skies as they shuttle back and forth to their nest tree. Like a townhouse development, these construction projects are over in the blink of an eye and soon, their bill loads of twigs will be replaced by food for their mate and, eventually, their insatiable young. Spotting these nests is both a great way to observe and engage with your local crow family and avoid unpleasant conflicts with protective crow parents.  With a little knowledge and a bit of practice, tracking down your resident crow nest will become one of your favorite spring traditions in no time.

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Nest construction and site selection

Nest construction begins in early March and will continue (as nests fail) through about June. It takes 1-2 weeks to finish a nest after which the female will lay a clutch of 2-6 eggs. Unlike similarly sized squirrel nests (aka: dreys) which are made of leaves, crow nests are made mostly of pencil-width twigs. A new nest is usually about 1.5 ft across and 8-10 in deep.  After the bulk of construction is complete, they’ll line the cup of the nest with soft materials like grass, tree bark, moss, flowers, paper or fur. Once we saw a crow ripping out the hair of an outdoor mannequin, no doubt to use as lining material.

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A crow gathers moss off the branches of a big leaf maple to use as lining material.  

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This bird toyed with this branch for a few minutes before rejecting it and letting it fall to the ground.  

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A sidewalk littered with twigs is good evidence that the nearby deciduous tree is a favorite among the local crows to pull branches from.  I’ve only once seen a crow try and retrieve a branch it dropped, so these are all rejects.  

Crows will nest in an astounding array of places, from the eaves of skyscrapers to the crooks of well concealed tree limbs. They can tower in the sky or be almost within reach. Most commonly, I see them built close to the trunk in the top third of Doug fir trees, but this is, of course, specific to the PNW.  Both partners participate in nest construction. Helpers will aid to some degree but most of the work is left to the parents.

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Differences among corvids

Crow, jay and raven nests are similar in shape and material but differ in overall size in accordance with the size of the bird. The main standout are magpies,  which build incredible domed-shaped nests the size of a large beach ball.  The nests require so much material, they can take as much as 40 days to build.  Japanese jungle crows are another species of note, as they have a (relatively) new and problematic habit of building nests out of wire hangers and causing massive blackouts.

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A Jungle crow nest in urban Japan. Photo: Götz

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The magpie’s nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree.

Reuse

The life of a typical nest is only about 9 weeks (1-2 weeks of building, 6 days of laying, 20 days of incubating and 4 weeks of nestlings) though they are hardy structures and can remain intact in a tree for years.  After the young fledge, the crows will not return to the nest.  Crows will only use a nest once, and generally only fledge one brood a year. They will, however, build on top of an old nest particularly in areas where nest trees are especially sparse like downtown Seattle. This also appears to be more common in the Midwest.

Avoiding conflicts

Most breeding related dive bombs occur as the result of a person being too close to a fledgling, but some crows get feisty around their nest too. Crows in areas where they are less persecuted (like cities) tend to be more aggressive than their rural counterparts. If you know where a nest is and can avoid it, do so and save everyone the aggravation. Otherwise carry an umbrella or paint eyes on the back of a hat. Crows rarely attack from the front so having eyes on the back of your head can be an effective deterrent!

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Putting all this together to actually find nests, is one of the most rewarding moments an urban naturalist or crow enthusiast can have.  Be warned though: crows are wary of potential predators (including people) spying on them and they have a few tricks for throwing you off, so don’t be surprised if a nest location you were certain of turns out to have been a ruse!

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Can you spot the nest? 

Have more questions? Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Birding, Breeding, Crow behavior, Crow life history, Crows and humans