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Nesting Instinct – First Encounter

The Nests of Lindsay Wildlife Museum

This is the first installment of a three part series on the Nests of Lindsay Wildlife Museum. Part 2, “Behind the Scenes” will take a look at how the nests are collected, categorized, conserved and studied before display. Part 3, “Outreach” is an interview with the museum’s Natural History Curator, Marty Buxton.

First Encounter
I am not a birder, too much looking through binoculars and neck strain, but that doesn’t keep me from being fascinated by their lives. I first came to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum and Hospital with a small finch, a pine siskin, that had flown into my house, having been attacked by my cats. After delivering my bird, who sadly did not make it, I walked around the museum, fascinated by the live collection of Raptors and Owls. These are birds that could not be released because of some kind of permanent damage they have experienced that prevents them from being able to survive in the wild. Most birds I see are either far away or pass too quickly to allow any kind of detailed observation. It still amazes me to see them in such close proximity, although it is sad to see such fabulous creatures unable to fly free as they were intended to by nature.

I was working on my “Exquisite Corpse” series at the time and always looking for subjects that were in good enough condition to meet my standards of exquisiteness. I thought that volunteering at the hospital would perhaps not only be an interesting and useful way to spend time, but also could perhaps avail me of a steady supply of less fortunate patients. After thorough training and indoctrination, that spanned over months of weekends and ended in an exam, I began volunteering as what pretty much amounted to an “orderly” in the hospital. People that commit large chunks of their time over years, can acquire skills that rival those of a veterinarian, but I decided to limit myself to one shift a week at the hospital and one a week doing taxidermy for the non-live collection that is used to help educate the public, figuring that what didn’t survive the hospital would eventually end up there, in the basement.

Not only does the museum house a live and a stuffed animal collection but the ~17,000 items in their collection include insects, rocks, minerals, bones, nests and fossils as well. When Marty Buxton, who is in charge of the collection offered me the opportunity to photograph it in its entirety, I jumped at the chance to commune with so cool and interesting things, up close and personal, to be able to touch them, turn them around, play with them and learn from them. I started with the bird nests.

Please click to enlarge to observe the arresting intricacies of these nests.

Left:  Steller’s Jay — Is a member of the Corvid family, which includes Crows and Ravens as well as Jays. Jays tend to be colorful, ranging from blues to grays and greens and they hop on the ground unlike the crows, who walk. (Hopping is thought to be more energy efficient for certain kinds of leg anatomy. Many songbirds hop rather than walk.)

Jays are among the most recent line of birds to evolve and one of the most intelligent. They are great mimics and their problem solving skills have been the subject of many an experiment in bird intelligence. The ones who live around my house seem to delight in imitating the food cries of the Red-tailed Hawks and watch the small birds go scurrying for cover. They run in a noisy rowdy gang are also notorious nest robbers eating not only the eggs but the nestlings of smaller, song birds.  They are my first warning that a predator, be it fox or raptor, is in the area.

Right:  Orange-crowned Warbler— Warblers are a large family of little migratory birds that are one of the main attractions for North American birders in the spring and fall. Peterson’s Western Birds lists about 50 different species describing them as “active, brightly colored birdlets, usually smaller than sparrows, with thin, needle-pointed bills. Most warblers sport some yellow although the Orange-crowned Warbler is one of the duller species, described by Peterson as “dingy” and their orange crown as “seldom seen.” Their summer and winter ranges overlap in California, which is the southern part of their breeding range, which reaches all the way to northern Alaska.

They feed not on seeds but by gleaning insects and eating fruit, nectar and tree sap and are known to feed at red-naped sapsucker wells. They are of scientific interest because they are the only host for a species of blood-feeding lice who’s reproduction is triggered by the bird’s own reproductive hormones. This “synchronized breeding by parasite and host, enables the lice to spread to other hosts especially the nestlings.

Left:  WrenKnown as “Troglodytes” or “cave dwellers,” wrens are cavity nesters. Because of a scarcity of “snags,” people tend to cut down the dead trees that many birds need for nesting, House wrens and Berwick’s Wrens often nest around humans, utilizing homes or outbuildings or provided nest boxes. My rotted out parking deck provided just such a hole for my Berwick’s Wren. I waited until the babies had fledged before starting the necessary repair and when it was finished, I placed a wren box as close to the original location as possible.

Every year since, my wrens have been back, using the box, now that their original hole is gone. They are tiny, brown and have a downwardly curved beak and a upwardly sticking tail. I generally get the impression that they are cursing me by their buzz-like squawk, which seems to defy their small size.

Right: OrioleOrioles are gorgeous, ranging from yellow to a fantastic yellowy-orange, highlighted accentuated by deep blacks. They are also master nest weavers. Unlike most birds, whose nests sit, those of most American Orioles hang. “Attached at rim or secured at sides to a drooping branch; woven of plant fiber strips, lined with fine grass, plant down, hair” according to “The Birder’s Handbook” which I rely on for all kinds of behavioral information, including birds diets, nests, incubation and fledging schedules. It’s a great resource.

They build the nests, carrying one fiber at a time, hanging onto the nest twig with their feet, winding the fibers into complicated knots hanging from 3 or 4 places that will become the edges of the nest. Clinging to the tangles they have created, they proceed to weave a “skeleton” that gets thicker and thicker until they can get inside and wiggle around, shaping the nest to the size and shape of their breasts.

Lindsay, has a “tame,” un-releasable Bullock’s Oriole that they use for their “Animal Encounters” program but it is flighty in it’s cage and much harder to get to know than say, the Acorn Woodpecker, who clowns around his cage, hanging upside-down, flashing his white iris and calling out to people.

Left:  Red-winged BlackbirdDistant relatives of Orioles, blackbirds tend to also sport brilliant colors although red, yellow and black rather than orange, are their most common color combinations. Red-winged Blackbirds are common in swampy areas where they straddle their nests, often above water in reeds, cattails, rushes and sedges bound to the stems with milkweed fiber.

Their epaulettes or “badges” are not always visible and are believed to function as territorial warnings, primarily to members of their own species. Experiments where birds’ red badges were dyed black resulted in an increased difficulty in defending their territories. And they are territorial. I remember once, while walking through Central Park, hearing a loud squawking and looking up to see a Black-crowned Night Heron, fleeing the reeds with a Red-Winged Blackbird firmly attached to his rump.


Right:  RobinRobins are everywhere. Although they are not seed eaters, they eat fruit in addition to insects and so are able to overwinter in northern climates. They can be seen feasting on berries in the autumn, my Pyracantha, for instance, although learned at Lindsay that the story that they “get drunk” on the berries is apocryphal. This was after I committed my erroneous belief to paper, by the way. This is, perhaps a good opportunity to correct that misconception that I, myself, am guilty of disseminating.  Robins are in the Thrush family, hence their melodic song. The Thrushes arguably sing some of the most beautiful songs of any bird. They use the syrinx, which unlike our larynx, is located where the trachea forks into the lungs, is capable of producing more than one note at a time, allowing thrushes to harmonize with themselves.

Robins glue their nests together with mud that they carry in their beaks and their eggs are a beautiful, greenish “Robin’s egg blue.” Methods for bonding the structural parts of the nests together vary considerably among species, saliva being another useful binder. Saliva from the swift nests is the prized ingredient of bird’s nest soup.

Left:  Western FlycatcherA member of the Empidonax group of Flycatchers or “empids” and perhaps actually two species, Western Flycatchers are medium-small birds, mostly grey with a crown on their head and hard to tell apart.

They feed exclusively on insects. Their hunting style, known as “hawking” is to sit on a branch and fly out when they see an insect which they almost always seem to easily catch. They are also known to fly into swarms of mosquitoes, making them a helpful ally.

Their nests are found in a wide variety of situations including stream banks, roots of upturned trees, eaves, cliff ledges and cavities in small trees. There nests are build from moss, lichen, rootlets, grass and leaves and lined with shredded bark, hair and feathers.

Right:  Brown TowheeBrown Towhees are common in California. Not as striking as their black, white and rust colored Rufus-sided or Spotted Towhee. Both species spend a lot of time on the ground, kicking up leaves in search of seeds, fruit and the occasional insect.

Their metallic “chink” can sound downright neurotic when they are anxiously raising their nestlings. They have reason to worry though, as the Steller’s and Scrub Jays are always eager to rob their nests. I learned this the hard way after finding a Towhee’s nest in a Bay tree and clipping one of the branches that was concealing it. The parents were very upset with me and I with myself when the nestlings quickly disappeared, victims of the Jays and my ignorance.


  1. Nancy — are these your photographs? Gorgeous! Janet

  2. Mona Houghton says:

    These are great! Really. I’d love to see the ‘real’ thing.

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