All summer, birds sneaked about, raising their young around us, their concealed nests, furtive comings and goings, and quiet behavior blending their breeding activities into our yards' habitat unnoticed. What will bare branches now reveal?
Like humans, birds take up a variety of residences. While all cardinal nests look much alike, they don't look like goldfinch nests. And while all goldfinch nests look much alike, they don't look like dove nests. And so it goes, each bird hardwired with its species-specific nest building instructions.
No one teaches a bird how to build its nest--where to locate, what to use, or how to keep it together. Vireo nests, intricately woven, hang secure, suspended between two twigs. Dove nests, such casual affairs that eggs and babies sometimes fall through the bottom, lack any architectural wonder. Gnatcatcher nests, covered in lichen, disappear in plain sight. Cliff swallows scoop mud for their adobe nests. Killdeer conceal rock-colored eggs among rocks.
One essential fact applies: All birds, by necessity, build with the natural materials around them--mostly some kind of vegetation.
Like humans, however, birds show an astonishing array of preferred home sites.
Great blue herons go for high-rise apartment complexes, nesting colonially in adjoining towering trees, sometimes a dozen nests per tree. Purple martins choose condos, man-made affairs that typically hang in clusters.
Common loons and pied-billed grebes always select water-front property, a nest at water's edge because neither walks comfortably on land. Gulls and terns ratchet it up a notch, choosing private islands on which to scrape out their nests.
Eagles and osprey always choose a home with a view, high enough to take in the score on fishing. Towhees, though, more likely choose a woodland bungalow, concealed, protected, and safe from roving mammals, while woodpeckers tend toward log cabins, hollowed tree limbs with a high, safe entrance.
Meadowlarks choose the equivalent of a little house on the prairie, nest sites tucked into vast grasslands. Indigo buntings put their prairie houses up on stilts, not much more than waist high, neatly woven into the fork of a sturdy weed or small sapling.
Perhaps an eagle's nest might equate to a mansion, especially after years of accumulated add-ons. But another magnificent bird, the great-horned owl, makes no home of its own, taking on the role of a squatter. It never builds a nest, commandeering whatever old hawk or eagle nest it can--or choosing an unadorned snag or hollow tree.
Baltimore orioles, though, use only the finest architectural design, raising their young in a fabulous pendulous nest, swaying in the breeze.
Belted Kingfishers go cave-man style, burrowing their nest cavity into a creek or river bank.
Thus, as the great reveal begins, enjoy the clues birds have left, at last sharing their summer nesting secrets with us.