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Nesting Instinct – Behind the Scenes

The Nests of the Lindsey Wildlife Museum –

This is the second installment of a three part series on the Nests of Lindsay Wildlife Museum. Part 1, “First Encounter” tells how the author-photographer first became a part of the museum’s conservation efforts. Part 3, “Outreach” is an interview with the museum’s Natural History Curator, Marty Buxton.

Behind the Scenes
The word curator comes from the Latin word cura, which means care. Also known as a keeper, the museum curator needs to be an authority on the subject of his/her collection to not only assure the collection’s good condition, but to organize, and interpret it’s contents for the public. By designing meaningful ways for others to interact with the subject matter the curator’s expertise is manifest whether through exhibitions, catalogs or commissioned programs for use by educational institutions.

A curator of a natural history museum requires knowledge of an extremely broad topic: the entire natural world. The basement of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum is bustling trying to keep pace with all that requires. Specimens are identified, inventoried, and lent back out for educational purposes. Exhibits are researched, designed and prepared. Educational games and teaching programs are created. Mounts have to be prepared and repaired, bones cleaned of flesh by a team of carnivorous beetles. Destructive beetles and moths must be eradicated. Calls from the public are answered when bats invade a home, a marmot is mistaken for a beaver-out-of-water, or what appears to be a meteorite lands in someone’s yard. A visiting entomologist stops by to help with a difficult identification or an expert on Native American basket-weaving comes in to advise on an exhibit.

The large part of the items in many museum collections are stored behind the scenes. The Lindsay Museum’s collection contains about 17,000 items. Photographing something of that size may take more than what I have left of my lifetime, but it’s pleasurable work, communing one on one, one by one, with such compelling objects. Most of the collection is native to California, not only nests, but rocks, minerals, fossils, bones, fur, nuts, insects, animal mounts, (including a passenger pigeon), human artifacts, and of course books on all these subjects as well.

Birds nests in particular, frequently host parasites and other potentially destructive insect or arachnid visitors and need to be frozen, in order to kill such things before they can be mixed in with the other specimens. The sight of a fluttering moth would cause considerably more stir in the Lindsay basement than a poisonous spider, wasp or scorpion would cause. Shouts of “kill it, kill it” will ring out, although nobody you will find there the least bit afraid for their own safety. The nests are blissfully free of feces though, I am happy to say. The mother bird takes that away in her beak. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

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


Left:  Western Flycatcher or Pacific-slope FlycatcherThis species of flycatchers is member of the tyrant flycatchers family, the Tyrannidae, a new world family considered the largest family of birds on earth with more than 400 species. Like most flycatchers, the Pacific-slope Flycatcher is a dullish, -brown,, small and not particularly distinguished looking. There are notable exceptions in the family including the gorgeous Vermillion Flycatcher, the Ornate Flycatcher and the Royal Flycatcher, below. The tropical Royal Flycatchers spectacular crest is not often seen outside of mating season although if the one pictured here in my friend’s hand is any indication, they may also raise them when they are really angry.

In spite of their drab coloring though, our local California flycatchers are cute, acrobatic and are voracious mosquito eaters. They can be quite delightful to watch as they sally out and back from a favorite tree branch hawking after their prey.

Right: OrioleUnlike the old-world birds also known as orioles, the new world orioles are a member of the Icteridae, or blackbird family, so they are related to brewers blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds and other, tropical icterids like the fabulous oropendolas who’s remarkable vocalizations are among my favorites.

Like most icterids, they build remarkable hanging, basket-like nests, woven out of fine materials. The nest in the photograph has been opened up and you can see the round, bird-body-shaped interior. I have always wondered what you do with your long bird tail when entering a saclike nest of this sort. It must be hinged much more flexibly than I could have imagined.


Left: Bell’s VireoThe Bell’s Vireo is a smallish, pale gray bird with a whitish gray belly. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions the interesting fact that the Bell’s Vireo has not been observed drinking water. It may be able to obtain all that it needs from its food.

The Least Bell’s Vireo is an endangered species in Southern California, mostly due to a loss of riparian habitat and brood parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird. Cowbirds, a member of the blackbird family (Icteridae) mentioned below, who have the ungracious habit of laying their eggs in the nests of smaller bird species. They then go on their merry way, leaving the poor victim to care for their offspring who quickly takes the lion’s share of the food, thus starving the legitimate babies.

Right: Brewer’s Blackbird —Brewer’s blackbirds are common visitor at California supermarkets, my bird watching, East Coast cousin was nonetheless excited to see one. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior explains that Brewer’s Blackbirds “have learned that car grilles are wonderful places from which to pick off nutritious insects. Within minutes of a car being parked, a Brewer’s Blackbird may begin to investigate the grille and clean it of anything edible” Many female icterids, including Brewer’s Blackbirds are known to sing, a behavior limited to males in many other species. While female Red-winged Blackbirds sing a very different song from the males, the song the female Brewer’s blackbirds sings, is similar to that of the male.


Left: Tufted TitmouseThe Tufted Titmouse is a close relative of the Chickadee, but mostly a soft gray, with a little crest, on top of their heads. Like chickadees, they love sunflower seeds and are common visitors at birdfeeders on both coasts. They are quite enjoyable to watch with their tiny size and cheeky personalities.

They are cavity nesters, taking up in an old woodpecker-excavated or natural cavity and lining it with moss, fur, bark, leaves grass, feathers and snake skin. They form long-term pair bonds with the young of a previous brood occasionally helping at the nest. Their diet includes spiders, spider eggs and a few snails, although their primary food is acorns.

Right: Brown Towhee or California TowheeAvailable materials, my neighbor’s Malamute’s fine, long hair has been a favorite source on my property. Towhees like to build their nests dense chaparral, particularly in poison oak, where they can feast on the pale, white berries. They also eat berries such as elderberry, coffeeberry, acorns, and garden produce like peas, plums, and apricots. May also eat spiders, millipedes, and snails. You won’t see them at feeders often unless you put out millet.

They forage mostly on the ground, and have an ungainly appearance in flight, using lots of wing power to travel short distances. They always look a little panicked to me, when I see them taking off of the ground. They are one of the most common birds in California although they don’t live much further East than the central part of the state.

Left: Western FlycatcherUnlike the Western Flycatcher nest in the top row, which is uses oak and birch leaves along with grass and feathers, the flycatcher who built this particular nest relied heavily on oak flowers. There is also a fair amount of shredded redwood bark present. This is probably the garden mulch I call gorilla hair. It was a huge with my garden birds. I found it in more than one of my nest boxes. The group of New World flycatchers or tyrannids, tend to favor sheltered nesting spots. The person who collected the nest describes observing “a bird flying up under the peak of a roof, carrying nesting material throughout the day. A high wind came up and the nest was found on the steps below.”

Right: Brewer’s Blackbird – Although the Brewer’s Blackbird nest here resembles those of Jays and Crows, the blackbirds are significantly smaller and They are just smaller than a robin, the males, a glossy black with a sheen of iridescent midnight blue, metallic green and purple when seen in full sun, accented by a striking, pale yellow eye. The females are a modest, brownish gray with a dark eye and slightly darker wings and tail. You can see them in large flocks sometimes, performing feats of synchronized flying or settling down noisily at night in a sheltering tree. Like pigeons, they can nest on cliffs, which is what may make them able to successfully colonize urban areas. As the paper straw sleeves testify, they make use of available local materials.

Comments

  1. What a great article, and even more – what a great idea for an essay. You’ve allowed me to see nests anew. Thank you.

  2. Susan Martin says:

    Thanks. I have always wanted to see the inside of an Oriole’s nest. They are one of my favorite birds. I still have never seen one ‘enter’ her nest. Great photos. Nests to me are ‘found sculptures’ each and every one.

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