Natural Perspectives: Their yard is going to the birds

When Vic and I wrote about the house wrens in our front yard two weeks ago, we weren't sure if the nest was a real one or a dummy nest. As far as we can tell, the nest is real and the female is most likely incubating eggs at this point. We don't want to look into the box to check, though, for fear of disturbing her if she is incubating.

If you remember, we mentioned that house wrens are polygynistic, meaning that the male may take more than one mate. But each female needs her own nest box for things to work out. Well, on the day that our column about wrens came out two weeks ago, a second female entered the scene. She was presumably attracted by the vigorous singing of the male.

I dashed over to Shipley Nature Center and bought their last two nesting boxes. These are actually built for bluebirds, but wrens don't know that and use them gladly. The reason I bought two is that I wanted one for the second female wren and one for any potential bluebirds that might still show up looking for a place to live. I hung one new box in the front yard near the active nest, and the other in back.

Immediately, our male wren began singing near the box in back. He would sit on top of the box and sing, hop to the opening and sing, then into a tree and sing. He has been a very busy little boy, flitting from the active nest box in front to the one in back and singing, singing, singing. He doesn't sound happy; he sounds desperate.

But his singing worked. The second female began building a nest in the box in back. So we have a "Big Love"-"Sister Wives" thing going on right in our yard. This is what passes for excitement at our house.

We are hoping for baby wrens in about two weeks. The male will have done his job and won't stick around for the hard work of catching insects and grubs for the little babies. He'll leave that to the ladies.

But wrens aren't the only excitement in our yard. Spring often brings mallards to our house, and this year is no exception. I noticed a few weeks ago that mallards were doing their annual March flyover of our neighborhood, looking for someplace to nest. But ecological succession had reduced the open area of our pond in front to mere inches. Plants have grown from the edge of the pond toward the center and are choking out the open water.

In nature, this will happen to any shallow pond as it fills in over time with muck and debris. Over time, it is converted naturally first to a meadow and then to a woodland. But in nature, floods often disrupt the natural succession, flushing out the pond. The filling-in process then starts over.

God willing, there will never be a storm intense enough to flush out our little pond. So the task falls to me to keep it clear of water plants. I spent a couple of days last week mucking around in the shallow water, pulling out excess water hyacinth, elephant ears and pennywort. The mosquito fish were probably quite grateful to have more open water to swim in.

A pair of mallards also approved of my pond-cleaning efforts. They have been swimming in our pond all week. It's a short swim. The pond was only five by eight feet when it was new. But there are now dense plantings around the perimeter of the pond, so even after cleaning, there were only about six square feet of open water. It's really more of a water garden than a pond. But two ducks fit into it quite nicely. They enjoy eating the roots of the water plants.

I built the pond in front more than 10 years ago, but we've never had mallards nest in the yard. A pair comes every March and stays for a few weeks, but there are never any baby ducks. One year, a crow followed the female around, just waiting for her to lay her eggs so it could eat them. For all I know, the female attempts to nest and the crows, possums or raccoons get her eggs before we see them.

This year, I'm feeding the mallards some of our hens' laying pellets. The two ducks are quite tame and obviously used to being fed. I suspect that they spend the rest of the year at Huntington Central Park.

The third bird story we have for today involves our chickens. Vic was surprisingly enthusiastic two years ago when I proposed getting laying hens. This week, I finally found out why. It wasn't the fresh eggs that he was interested in. Vic wanted to use one of the hens as a live demonstration for the feather lecture he gives his birding class.

Henrietta, the black Australorp hen, is by far the most docile of the three chickens. She is the only one who will let me pet her. She now expects to be petted every day when I feed her. The other two hens can't be bothered by such an intrusion into their personal space. So Henrietta was volunteered to go to bird class.

I went along as chicken handler. Vic and I had never done this before, and we didn't know how Henrietta would react to 20 senior citizens gawking at her. Turns out she's quite the ham and was more than happy to show off her pretty black feathers.

I took her out of the pet carrier and put her on a table on which I had spread newspapers. I also put down some scratch (feed) to distract her. Chickens in the movies are always pecking at grain on the ground, so I figured that's how professional chicken handlers get the chickens to stand where the director wants them.

Henrietta was a surprisingly good actress. Vic wanted to talk about tail feathers first, so I rotated her to direct her tail at the class. As Vic reached over her back to point to her tail feathers, she squatted and raised her tail at the class as though she were trained to do it. The class was quite impressed. In reality, Henrietta had reacted to Vic as though he were a rooster. She was just preparing to be mounted.

She wasn't nearly as enthusiastic about demonstrating her wing feathers. But all in all, she was a wonderful feather model and an interesting addition to the class.

So with chickens in our backyard, mallards in our front yard and house wrens in front and back, we're having a happy spring. Hope you are too.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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