Give our nesting avian friends a helping hand | WHIDBEY BIRDING

A pair of spunky brown Bewick’s wrens is building a nest just outside our front door. Quietly and furtively they sneak through the low shrubs near the side of our house, beaks stuffed with dry grass, and disappear into their dwelling, a plain wooden birdhouse about 4 feet off the porch.

And they aren’t the only birds busy nesting.

Eagles and crows soar overhead with sticks and twigs in their beaks. A noisy flicker drills on our metal post caps making a beautiful-to-him breeding tattoo. To me it has become a brain rattling irritation.

Mother robin secretly disappears into the dense Douglas fir tree with a mouthful of dried grass. Hummingbirds glean spiders’ webs for their expandable lichen-camouflaged abodes.

While driving east of the Cascades I recently watched a black-billed magpie perched atop a horse. The bird plucked rusty-red hairs from the horse’s mane to line its nest.

A friend hangs up a mesh bag filled with the hair that she has brushed from her dogs. I used to do the same with lint from the dryer but have recently learned that the non-natural fibers from most of our clothing, towels, etc. could cause problems for the birds. Now I hang a ball of pure cotton, which I purchase at Wild Birds Unlimited.

Any day now the migrating barn swallows will arrive from down south and begin slapping beakfuls of mud on the light fixture above the front door. I’ll hang strips of caution tape from the porch ceiling to help usher them around to the back deck to construct their messy nests. The tree and violet-green swallows will begin fluttering around their nest boxes and I’ll cajole my husband into climbing a ladder, which I will hold steady, to clean out the swallow boxes.

Putting up with these small inconveniences pales compared to the joy we receive from inviting the birds into our garden, watching their antics, admiring their spectacular plumage, hearing their songs and seeing the young fledge out into the world.

I’m always surprised when I discover a nest in an unexpected place. Several years ago a pair of wrens built a nest in our potting shed while it was under construction. We’d left for a week and upon our return we discovered an incubating mother sitting on a nest in a paper bag fresh from Ace Hardware full of door hinges and a box of nails. My husband had left the bag on the shed’s counter before we left town and the wrens had moved right in.

Wrens have nested in old boots. Juncos often select a flowerpot by the front door.

I recently heard a presentation on birds’ nests by Idie Ulsh, a longtime Seattle Audubon member. She showed photos of a bird’s nest made entirely from iron filings, a nest woven with strips from a blue plastic tarp, and a nest constructed in the unzipped pouch under the seat of a bicycle. My favorite photo showed an aluminum washtub nailed high up in a tree. The eyes and ear tufts of a great-horned owl peeked over the rim.

All these birds have had to adjust to our human-altered environment and have found ways to nest in and around our houses and communities. Their resourcefulness astounds me and their commitment to nesting humbles me.

But still, I worry about our spring nesting birds. According to a front-page article in this paper, 4 billion birds are killed in the United States each year by free-roaming cats. That’s, on average, 11 million bird deaths every day. Many of the victims are nestlings and recently fledged young birds.

Because of this, Whidbey Audubon has joined Audubon groups all over the country to encourage cat owners to keep their pets indoors. It’s especially important to keep cats indoors during the nesting season when both the young and the adult birds are vulnerable.

The birds have done their part to learn to live with us. Isn’t it time that we bend our ways to give them a helping hand?

Frances Wood can be reached at