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The Hazards Of An Empty Feeder

When I can’t fill the feeders at Mr. Neil’s house, the groundskeeper named Hans usually does the honors.  He does an admirable job but he has a ton of things to do like maintaining trails and keeping the grass and weeds trimmed around the beehives.  And now that we have 8 beehives, let’s bow our heads in honor of dear, sweet Hans who has sustained more stings than any of us and yet makes life easier for hive inspections.


But sometimes certain feeders go empty (especially the suet log, because I appear to be the only person in the US who actually enjoys the feeling of squashed animal fat mixed with peanut butter on my fingers).  And this summer, the safflower feeder went empty but Mr. Neil called me over to see what had been filled inside in place of the usual safflower:

I knew as soon as I saw the feeding ports what had moved in, but then wondered, “How did a house wren fit in there?  I know they are tiny, but wow!”  House wrens are the smallest cavity nesting birds in our neck of the woods.  They only need a hole that is one inch in diameter to fit their tiny bodies through.  The other thing is that you can usually id the type of cavity nesting bird in your nest box by the material–house wrens are all sticks.  Chickadees usually weave a neat fur lined cup nest, bluebirds nests are made of fine grasses and tree swallows line the nest cup with huge feathers from ducks.  House sparrows will make a nest out of everything: grass, sticks, vines, cellophane, cigarette butts, etc.

As I wondered how the house wren was getting in out of the feeder, I soon had my answer.  Apparently the lid had been left only slightly ajar and that was all the enterprising little male needed to collect twigs.

When we looked inside, we could see a whole pile of sticks, but no complete nest.  One of the really interesting things about the tiny house wren is that they will make five nests, use one to rear chicks and the rest as decoys to fool marauding predators (even defending a decoy nest as if there were eggs inside–clever birds).  I figured this was going to be a decoy nest.  Mr. Neil didn’t mind the wrens so we left the roof ajar.

Non Birding Bill and I came over for a bee inspection and some grilling and we watched the wren declare his territory in boisterous song.

There was at least one female who took him up on his twittery offer and inspected the feeder inside and out.  I always figured that the males put sticks in several locations, the female chooses the one she will use for eggs and the rest become the decoys.  She flew off after a few moments and I thought, “She’s going to make that one the decoy.”

Cut to one week later! On Sunday, we arrived for another cookout at Mr. Neil’s and as soon as we arrived he took me out to the feeder and showed me this:

Gah!  A feeder full of sticks, a small feather-lined cup and three tiny house wren eggs.  Well, this feeder is out of commission for a month.  I think the female was still in process of laying eggs and that incubation will start today or tomorrow.  From there we have about 12 days of incubation and then another 12 – 13 days before the chicks fledge.  I think the other birds can live without safflower that long.

I must say that this breaks one of my bird feeding rules of thumb: don’t have nest boxes around your bird feeding station.  Birds generally don’t want to nest near where nest raiders show up on a regular basis (ie squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, crows, woodpeckers, raccoons, etc).  At least they nested in a squirrel proof feeder, so that solves that problem and maybe the wren’s nest decoy strategy will fool the other egg eaters?


22 comments to The Hazards Of An Empty Feeder

  • Nicki

    Is it still a squirrelproof feeder if the lid is left ajar? (:

  • Well, a squirrel could get a face full of wren…I’ve had it, it’s not as pleasant as it sounds.

  • Jen8

    Wrens are my bird of the summer of 2010. Empty stick nests here at home but up a camp a couple of full of life nests! Now that I know what those empty stick nests were I feel better. I thought my real estate offerings were being rejected.

  • Wow, I have never seen that! Maybe they like the sound of the rain on the “tin” roof as much as we do. It is quite relaxing. Great photos. Keep us posted on the how things progress.

  • TK

    I found a similar pile of sticks in a watering can hanging on my garage wall (inside). Lots of wrens in my neighborhood, I am a very amateur birder, I learn so much from you…Thanks!


  • What a wonderful post. Great story line … so far. Keep us posted on the future of those eggs.

  • Kurta

    Ah, those twigs look familiar! I have a prospective House Wren making his rounds on the property and he has quite a potential homestead in my trellis bird house. I’d love for him to nest there.

  • what a lovely story, it’s amazing what small spaces a wren can fit into .

  • Jacci

    I love the bluejay feather along the edge of the nest

  • Awesome pictures. I’ve got three sets of nesting wrens, but in more “traditional” housing. Little birds, but they act huge when protecting their nests.

  • I never knew that House Wrens used sticks for the nest! Seems strange that such tiny birds would use a comparatively huge amount of uncomfortable sticks to nest in. Thanks for the story!

  • nikkikoval

    I had a successful wren nest in my hanging flower pot on my patio. It was great to see the little fledglings trying their wings. I lost half of my flowers but it was worth it. Thanks for your help on watering the plant while the nest was there.

  • Very ‘timely’ post! I had bought a couple of decorative birhouses not expecting anything to nest in them…and house wrens did! They have me enamored with them, and I bought my first pair of binocs! I didn’t know what they were but a friend said from my description they sounded like house wrens. All I could think of was house sparrows, and I knew you would, so I googled house wren birdchick, and a post from June came up…and yep! I knew you’d know!

  • nope, i LOVE making suet & peanut butter cakes for the multitude of birds around here!

  • We had a nest in the little box that housed our water meter once. Cat-proof and comfy little home they made for themselves.

  • I love the first pic of the wren (tweeting). Fantastic shot.

  • Lisa

    That’s just kind of neat. :) I have no feeders, only cats. ;) but I love this heartwarming event. :) Thanks for sharing.

  • Too funny. We had a nest right outside our front door, in front of our porch. The wrens show little fear and I pity their 1000-times-a-day feeding trips.

  • Teresa Raines

    How lovely! I am so happy you are leaving the nest.

  • Bluestem

    I also put up three houses around my yard, and the wrens use all but only nest in one. We ve had a unusually profligate summer; 5 house sparrow broods / 3 nests; 2 robin broods / 1 nest; 1 house wren brood, with Pops hanging out to engage another / same female in courtship. Marvelous too that they empty my berry and tomato patches of insects

  • Joe

    Great pics! Just goes to show that birds don’t really care that we’ve made special little houses for them. They just start nesting in whatever little interesting nooks they can find :)

  • I loved this story…my sister had a wren that filled up her Blue bird bird house with stickes and a pile on the ground, we figured he couldn’t get in the house. After ready this story, it must have been a decoy house…I am a bird watcher of the casual type. Like to visit the Parks and Preserves to see what one can see. Always a thrill