Our Closest Neighbors Are Birds

Photo of a Bewick's wren perched on a backyard railing
A Bewick's wren perched on a backyard railing

Several avian neighbors regularly flout our home owners association rules by installing custom built additions on our house from late spring into the summer months. Of course our human neighbors are not aware of the nests and even if they were, it is against the law to move or destroy an active nest. While the three species discussed here are considered native to and common in California, each one ranges, to varying degrees, far beyond the state.

Photo of a Bewick's wren perched on a backyard railing
A Bewick’s wren perched on a backyard railing

A Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii) couple made a nest on a side of our house at a spot where the wall, roof and eaves intersect to form a small cavity. One morning I noticed two birds with white eyebrows making numerous trips from south to north. They hopped with brisk intent along a low brick and embedded iron railing wall that borders our patio, stopping every few feet to scan their surroundings. On almost every trip in the northerly direction, one or both wrens carried an insect in its beak. Upon reaching a particular spot along the wall he or she would gaze up at an opening that never previously looked like a nest box to me, take a brief flight up to the entrance and disappear inside. I have not attempted to view the chicks at their nest because to do so would require a way to see into a dark space that is enclosed on all but one side. From the outside, this inadvertent nest box looks like a good place to escape the notice of predators.

Still common in the western states, the Bewick’s wren population has declined significantly in the east. The species’ decline has been attributed to both pesticides and the aggressive nesting behavior of the House wren, a related but more aggressive wren that is known to commandeer nests and destroy the eggs and young of the Bewick’s wren, as well as those of other birds.



A resident House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) couple nested on the western wall of the house. (The Bewick’s wren nest is also located along this wall, about five meters to the north.) The nest sits on a ledge underneath the roof overhang.

Photo of the House finch nest
The House finch nest

Finches have been nesting here for at least two years. The nest was, still is, visible from inside the house, through a window. Sometimes the female can be glimpsed at the nest with her head bobbing about in a way that suggested she might be feeding nestlings.

About six weeks ago I suspected they were feeding nestlings, but confirmation would require climbing up a ladder and peering into the nest. Being curious but reluctant to be a source of stress, I put it off.  One afternoon I looked up through the window at the nest to see a California scrub-jay fly to the ledge and start pecking at something in the nest. The parents were not around. Not being one to interfere with nature, I ran outside waving my arms and yelling. At this the jay flew to a nearby tree and the parents returned a moment later, one perched on a nearby railing and the other in a tree near the jay. Neither approached the nest, probably because I was in the way. The jay made another approach at the nest, but turned back. Between the unidentified earthbound object’s interference and finch parents’ presence, the jay determined that it was no longer going get a quick meal and flew away.

I  pulled the ladder out of the garage. At the nest I found two very young and awkward-looking nestlings covered with fluffy down. The one closest to me opened its mouth, as if to receive food; it appeared to be unharmed. I could not determine the status of the second nestling as its head seemed to be tucked into its body, as if in sleep. I left the scene so the parents could get back to their young. An hour later I stopped at the window to see the female tending the nest.



Photo of Mourning Dove fledglings on a ledge under roof eaves
Mourning Dove fledglings on a ledge under roof eaves

The Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) ranges throughout most of the United States and into parts of Canada, Mexico and Central America. I discovered a pair of fledglings in a nest on the eastern side of our house when I walked  underneath the nest and a parent flew out, causing alarm for all concerned. At the parent’s sudden exit, a fledgling in the nest lost its perch and tumbled out. The young bird’s feathers were not developed enough for flight, but it was able to flap enough to glide into a landing. I picked up the fledgling with its wings folded close to the body and put it back in the nest. When I climbed up the ladder to take a photo later in the day, I discovered a second, smaller fledgling. The typical clutch size is two eggs.

The following afternoon I was working in the garden within sight distance of the nest when the larger of the two fledglings once again jumped, flapped and glided out of the nest when a parent took off. This time it was far too fast for me to catch and return even though it still could not fly. Accompanied by both parents from above, it hopped and flew short distances and disappeared among a tangle of trees in a neighbor’s yard on the other side of the decrepit iron railing that serves as a border around our property. In researching the species’ behavior, I learned that the male will feed a fledgling on the ground for up to two weeks, until it is ready to fly and be on its own.

The oldest known Mourning dove lived to over 30 years of age. Because they are fairly long-lived, the parents of the young pictured here may be the same pair that has nested at this spot every year since 2012. The couple tending this nest started off their courtship in the spring. I think that they have already produced a new brood because a parent is sitting on the nest now at all times. (The species is known to produce up to six broods per year.) During courtship they perch on the railing along the perimeter of our backyard and perform a back-and-forth dance that involves quite a bit of grooming. The male grooms the female, then she side-steps away and he follows her. When the male stops his pursuit, she returns and begins grooming him. Then the routine begins again. The male has a few spots on the railing where he likes to sit and coo his plaintive lament. To the human ear it may sound romantic or mournful, until one learns that this is a territorial call letting other males know to stay away.

By S. Felton

S. Felton is a writer, photographer and amateur naturalist.

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