Ovenbirds, the warblers responsible for the “teacher–teacher-teacher- TEACHER” song that reverberates throughout deciduous woods at this time of year, are known not only for their distinctive song, but also for their unique domed, ground nests (see dead center of photo). It is the resemblance of their nest to an old-fashioned domed oven that is the source of the Ovenbird’s common name. The materials used to build the nest (bulk of nest is made up of leaves, with additional bits of plant stems, bark, pine needles, rootlets , moss and a lining of deer and/or horse hair), as well as the roofed structure make it all but invisible to most passersby. More often than not the female Ovenbird chooses a site with an especially thick leaf layer on which to build her 6 ½-inch-diameter nest. She enters and exits through a side entrance that is roughly 2 inches wide. The female incubates and broods the young, but both parents feed them, approaching and leaving the nest on foot along a few partially concealed routes. As the nestlings grow, the top of the nest is frequently pushed back, exposing the nest cup. No attempt is made by either parent to reconstruct the roof before the young fledge in about a week to ten days. (Thanks to Tii McLane for photo op.)
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Winter provides an opportunity to get a close look at last year’s bird nests to see who might have been nesting under our very noses without divulging their presence (Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Nests is a great resource). A walk near wetlands in winter often reveals a yellow warbler nest. It is quite easy to recognize as it is lined with downy plant fibers and is fairly thick-walled. Yellow warblers are often victims of brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and therefore avoid the labor of raising their own chicks. Many birds don’t recognize a cowbird’s egg, and incubate it and raise the young cowbird chick as their own. Yellow warblers, however, can distinguish between their eggs and a cowbird’s. Upon returning to her nest and finding a cowbird egg (often laid before the host bird begins laying her eggs), the female yellow warbler simply builds another nest right on top of the nest containing the cowbird egg, and begins anew. As many as six stories of nests have been found with cowbird eggs buried in each layer.
The Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka “Butterbutt”) has returned to our woodlands, and our ears and eyes are all the richer for it. The song of this bejeweled songbird often stumps me the first time I hear it every spring. It is described as a “slow, soft, sweetly whistled warble” or trill. It is also said to resemble the sound of an old-time sewing machine. To see which song description you prefer, or to make your own, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-rumped_warbler/sounds.