Explore how grassland birds make nesting in the prairie a
beautiful yet dangerous part of life...
Grassland birds lead hidden lives under the thick cover of prairie plants. What does this ground-level existence look like? What does it take to get a new brood of young to fledge and survive?
This summer, Madison Audubon education director Carolyn Byers will open your eyes to the world of grassland birds and their nesting ecology through our new series, Into the Nest. Regular posts with short essays, photos, and nest camera videos will reveal the advantages, challenges, coziness, and dangers of nesting in the prairie, and how you can help these fascinating and vulnerable birds.
Don't miss any of the Into the Nest posts, all listed below.
October 9, 2018 | We know that human kids grow, mature, and gradually move towards a life that is independent of their parents’ home. The same is true for baby birds: they also have to decide when the time is right to leave the nest and start on their journey to independence. This seems to involve a balancing act between making sure they are big and healthy enough to survive independently, while leaving the nest quickly to avoid predators.
September 19, 2018 | In this study, of the nests where adult birds happened to be with their chicks when a snake came a-calling, 76% of the parents defended their nest. This means they used the non-aggressive tactics I described earlier (alarm calling and feinting swoops) or they attacked aggressively and make contact with the snakes. 47% of these parents physically attacked the snakes.
September 12, 2018 | While adult birds and eggs are vulnerable during incubation, they are at even greater risk after chicks hatch. Most of our grassland birds are altricial as chicks, and need to stay in the nest long enough to be reasonably mobile when they fledge. However, chicks are also very vulnerable in the nest: they stay in one place, and the noise and activity surrounding the nest can attract predators. These birds need to balance the benefits of staying in the nest until they are able to fly to forage and escape predators with the potential risks of being found by predators while still in the nest.
August 9, 2018 | A lot of people really dislike - even hate - cowbirds. I get it. It can be hard to watch a small warbler trying to keep a huge cowbird chick fed, and it’s sad when host species eggs get destroyed. But objectively and unemotionally, cowbirds are amazing, smart, resilient, and cool. Their reproductive strategy allows them to produce many more offspring than the average bird. Hopefully by the end of this post, you’ll be thinking about cowbird behavior in a new light too.
July 30, 2018 | Keeping the nest clean is a pretty big deal. Some large raptors are able to defend their nest from nearly anything, so it doesn’t matter how messy they are. Not so for our grassland birds. They are ill-equipped to fight back against most predators, and fare much better when they’re able to go unnoticed. Dirty nests could smell strongly, and attract curious - and hungry! - mammalian predators.
July 10, 2018 | Now that the chicks have hatched, they are in almost constant need of food. Grassland bird chicks generally fledge in about 10 days, and their growth rates are incredible. Parents must balance all of their chicks’ needs - food, thermoregulation, protection from predators, and shelter- to maximize their chances of survival.
June 6, 2018 | The grassland birds that we’ve been following this summer have completed the arduous journey back to Wisconsin, set up territories, and found mates. They have built a nest and laid a clutch of breathtakingly beautiful eggs. Now they need to ensure the eggs survive until hatching-- no small feat.
May 31, 2018 | Most birds lay their eggs in the early morning. This is likely because carrying a large, fragile egg within the oviduct throughout the day could be risky! Gravid female birds (those carrying eggs) are weighted down by their cargo, and may have trouble avoiding predators. Laying an egg is also a vulnerable time for a bird, and early morning laying may minimize their chance of being disturbed by predators (Gill 2007).
May 22, 2018 | Grassland bird nests are just about my favorite things ever. They’re perfect little secrets hiding in the foliage, holding precious babes. I love the way they are often fairly similar, but have subtle differences that let you identify who built them. (Sparrows are my favorite group of birds, which might explain why I love small brown things that look alike!) Nest searching is tricky business too -- and it feels like an incredible accomplishment when you find one.
May 15, 2018 | Territories are used for a variety of activities, and their size can vary dramatically depending on their function. A territory held by a colonial seabird may only be large enough for the bird’s nest, and all other activities would take place outside of the territory. Territories may be used only for mating displays. Other birds may hold territories large enough to encompass all of the resources they will need throughout the season. They may be carefully defended year round, or held only for part of the year. Birds typically exclude only their own species from their territory, but may work to defend it from other species too.
May 8, 2018 | Last week our grassland birds were on an epic journey north to Wisconsin. They made this monumental trek to gain access to the huge flush of productivity that occurs in the northern spring and summer. This food bonanza will make raising a brood a hungry chicks easier, and makes the hard migration worth it in the long run.
So what happens to our birds after they arrive back in Wisconsin? They search for habitat and work towards setting up territories.
May 1, 2018 | We all have a scene that pops into our heads when we think of ‘grassland birds’. Maybe you simply think of the birds themselves. Perhaps you see sunlight glistening on dewy prairie, while a northern harrier floats a few feet above the grass. Do you hear a dawn chorus of bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks punctuated by the quiet whisper of Henslow’s sparrow? Whatever image you conjure, I imagine it warms your heart.
Banner photo: Upland sandpiper nest and eggs, photo by Carolyn Byers