published Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

Roberts: Mistakes help us learn


by Dalton Roberts

When I have a bird I don't recognize in my backyard or in one of my boxes, I see it as a chance to learn.

If I misidentify it, I am not embarrassed. The experts often disagree on the fine points of bird identification. There are dozens of birds that look very much alike.

Something special comes out of each error I make -- like last year when I thought I had a black-throated blue warbler. It turned out to be a tree swallow, but it gave me my first experience at seeing a tree swallow. And my first experience at seeing a picture of a black-throated blue warbler. Here I was with a pair of tree swallows in my own box raising a houseful of little birds I have never seen in a lifetime of bird-watching.

The most recent case in point was a house wren that occupied one of my bluebird boxes. I looked through my Peterson's Guide and could not find it. It is one of the busiest, most fidgety birds I have ever had, and it would not hold still long enough for me to check out all its markings. My best guess was that it was a Tennessee warbler.

It became important to freeze-frame it, so Harold Sharp of the Riverwalk Bird Watchers Club brought his telescopic camera over. He soon determined it was a house wren.

I became well-acquainted with our native Carolina wrens from the very start.

I took a college course in ornithology (the study of birds), and one of my first projects was doing a study on the nesting habits of Carolina wrens. So I became well-acquainted with our native wrens.

Over the years, I have followed them with great appreciation and admiration. But the house wren was a new species to me.

Harold emailed me, "I sent Kevin Calhoon, our local bird expert, a photo of your wren. He said you are very lucky to have a house wren nesting in your box as they are very rare in this territory."

I have been watching birds a long time, but I have never seen a bird as active as a house wren. Harold understated the truth when he wrote, "They are hard workers." When feeding their young, I have never seen a bird bring home the bacon (bugs) like they do.

Except for doves, I have never seen a bird build a nest out of sticks. Doves build flimsy nests with little else than sticks, and their babies often fall out of them. The house wren builds a great nest out of nothing but 4- to 6-inch sticks! That was our final way to identify the wrens in our box. We opened the box far enough to see there was nothing there but sticks and little babies. Harold says one house wren nest had 1,300 sticks in it.

I cannot help but wonder how the babies get comfortable in a pile of sticks, but they seem to do just fine. Maybe that's one way Mama and Daddy Wren get them our of the nest: Keep them uncomfortable. Maybe humans should try that with their offspring.

While working in her flowers, Glenda heard them singing and says they have a lovely little song. Another reason to be glad if they ever nest with you.

Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

about Dalton Roberts...

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