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In This Place

It's Not Easy Being a Bird in June

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Nate Rathbun/USFWS
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Ovenbird

For a huge swath of the bird world, June is make or break month. Whether it's Arctic nesting shorebirds and ducks, boreal-breeding songbirds, or many of the birds in your neighborhood, June is when they are under a lot of pressure to make more birds. This involves many steps - find a mate, convince them of your general sexiness and/or fertility, build and hide nests, protect and warm the delicate little eggs, fend off a huge menagerie of would-be nest robbers, and find enough food for the kids. Things we humans take a lifetime to do have to be accomplished in 4 or 5 weeks, or a few months, at most, for bigger birds.

So you’ll have to forgive them if they seem a little jumpy. The robins in my neighborhood are very easily triggered lately. I can tell something is up when their calls hit a certain pitch – typically it’s because the local Red-tailed Hawk is sitting nearby. Although earlier today I went out to see what they were upset about and I found nothing but a Blue Jay making some feeble Red-tailed Hawk imitations. I’ll never know whether there was another unseen predator or if the robin fell for the Blue Jay’s oldest trick. Red-tail isn’t even their best impression – they do the other hawks much better.

Even big old turkeys aren’t safe. Only females incubate, so those big, rich eggs are often left unguarded, especially early in the nesting cycle. This leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of marauding critters, especially foxes. The other day my off-Cape brother found a single turkey egg buried under the mulch in his garden bed. This is a classic Red Fox move – I’ve seen them do this with chipmunks, then come back later to excavate the stash and cram it in with the rest of the chipmunks in their mouth – I‘ve seen them carrying at least four. They also have mouths to feed, after all.

Furry fiends aren’t the only worry of the ground nesting bird. On Sunday morning I was completing an annual Breeding Bird Survey route from South Truro to Brewster when I heard some Ovenbirds chipping excitedly. One even began flopping into this remote dirt road with both wings spread in a songbird’s version of the broken wing display. It seemed much more fuss than I might have caused, so I suspected a predator. Sure enough, the sinuous form of a sizeable Black Racer took shape in the leaf litter. Racers and snakes are, of course, no friend to the nesting bird – I have more than once seen them draped across a now empty nest, telltale bulges in their body. I never got to see how this drama played out as the grueling pace of the survey required that we move on.

Many distraught folks have lately been posting photos of backyard bird boxes with the nest contents ripped out through the hole. This is typically the calling card of a raccoon, and those who maintain the various Cape Cod “bluebird trails”, as nest box arrays used to be called, know the struggle of battling these smart and dexterous nest raiders. At Wellfleet Bay sanctuary we tried everything from smooth PVC pipe on the post, to roof extenders to keep them from reaching those little hands down and into the hole, to literally barbed wire curled around the pole, but only commercial-grade pole baffles from Birdwatcher’s General Store in Orleans did the trick.

My point with all this is, it’s not easy being a bird in June. Everything wants to eat your eggs and babies – literally everything. Chipmunks, squirrels, mice, other birds, outdoor cats, snakes. Even white-tailed deer have been documented eating eggs and nestlings of ground nesting birds – caught on camera and everything. So all those cartoons and children’s books – the ones where the foxes and mice and birds are all friends and they never really address what everyone is eating – are apparently a big lie. Just ask a real bird trying to survive June.