Yarn-Free Nests
I have seen social media posts about putting scrap yarn outside for birds to use in nest-building. While this sounds like a great idea, is it safe to do so or will birds ingest it?
Lisa Tissari, Orono

It may feel early to be talking about nesting birds, but large birds like bald eagles and great horned owls have been on nests for weeks already, not to mention the house sparrows and rock pigeons that already have young. The abundant cones this winter, especially from spruces up north, have triggered crossbills to breed early; there was even a juvenile white-winged crossbill found near Moosehead Lake in the first week of March.

But most species haven’t started building nests yet. We can do a few things to help, but we need to be sure we aren’t doing anything that will accidentally hurt. The simple answer is to put out only natural, organic items for birds to use in constructing their nests. Anything synthetic could do harm. We often see birds use discarded trash in nests — gray catbirds seem to have an affinity for putting pieces of plastic in the outer edges of their messy cupped nests — but this doesn’t mean we should encourage it. One problem with man-made items is that they are not forgiving. A piece of yarn may get tangled around a chick while a piece of grass would simply break away.

People often ask about putting out dryer lint. Don’t do it! It’s too malleable and can become sticky when wet. We also get questions about pet hair. This falls in a gray zone. Generally, pet hair, like the hair on wild animals, is a great material for nests, especially the inner lining. However, don’t put out animal hair that has been treated with chemicals that could harm the birds, especially flea and tick treatments. These are insecticides, and even most shampoos are potentially dangerous. Don’t even ask about human hair . . . you wouldn’t believe how many chemicals you’re putting on your head.

So what can you put out? Think about the natural items you see in nests (look for last year’s nests in bare trees before leaf out) and double down on those. Anything from small sticks to long pieces of grass can be provided. A suet cage (clean it first!) filled with these materials, and/or chem-free dog hair, can be very fun to watch as birds pull pieces out. And if you see birds gathering nest materials, you can report those sightings to the Maine Bird Atlas (more at maine.gov/birdatlas).

American woodcocks are arriving now in Maine. Dave Nelson/Shutterstock

Woodcock’s Frozen Dinners
As the ground begins to thaw, when might we expect the return of American woodcocks and how do they feed?
Michael Gelsanliter, Portland

One of my favorite signs of spring is the arrival of American woodcocks, colloquially known as “timberdoodles,” to wet fields, signaled by their aural and aerial displays in the evening. We can typically expect to see them here in Maine by mid-March. For those who don’t know this species, woodcocks are shorebirds that don’t live by the shore. Instead, they nest in wooded forests across Maine after migrating from their wintering range in the southeastern quarter of the country. These birds are “near migrants” and will use environmental cues like temperature to assist in timing their migrations. Plump, mottled and long-beaked, these birds are famous for the acrobatic “sky dances” they perform during spring courtship season.

So back to Michael’s question: What do they do if the ground is frozen when they arrive? Oversimplified, they find someplace that’s not frozen! There is almost always some soft ground to be found, especially near areas with flowing water where ice won’t form. Edges of streams are great places to probe for invertebrates in late winter. Sometimes we have big snow events after woodcocks arrive. These can be deadly for early migrants, but hopefully they have enough fat built up to weather the storm. With late, big snowstorms, we often get reports of woodcocks (and other insectivores) feeding around the edges of houses, finding thawed ground near warm foundations.

It’s fun to ponder Michael’s question on another level: The primary food source for American woodcocks is earthworms (Oligochaeta), also known as night-crawlers, which the birds probe from the ground with their long tactile bills. You can think of them like American robins, pulling long crawlers from the soil, but with a tool five times longer!

But did you know Maine has no native earthworms? The last native earthworms apparently were wiped out by the Pleistocene ice age (10,000 years ago), and it wasn’t until European settlers arrived in the 1600s that our modern earthworms began to thrive in North America. So what did American woodcocks eat before earthworms became so plentiful? We know they also eat a lot of beetles (Coleoptera) and, to a lesser extent, insects like millipedes (Diplopoda), ants (Hymenoptera), and flies (Diptera). It makes you wonder how the populations of invertebrates are changing with earthworms taking over, and how woodcock populations have fluctuated with this increased food source.

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about volunteering, classes, bird walks, and other programs about wildlife and habitat.


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