Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds

Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds

by Laura Erickson, Marie Read


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See the intimate lives of birds as never before! Laura Erikson and Marie Read document the family lives of more than 50 common North American birds through breathtaking close-up photography. Stunning images of hummingbirds, owls, tanagers, and more showcase different stages of avian development and capture the loving bond that exists within each bird family. Bird enthusiasts of all feathers will cherish these beautiful images of courting, nest construction, eggs, nestlings, feeding time, and much more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612122298
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 539,637
Product dimensions: 9.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Laura Erickson is the author of several bird books, including The Love Lives of Birds and The Bird Watching Answer Book, and is coauthor of Into the Nest. A recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson award, she has served as science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, an editor of Bird Scope magazine, and a columnist and contributing editor for Birdwatching magazine. She produces For the Birds, a long-running public radio program and podcast, and lives in Duluth, Minnesota. Find her online at

Marie (pronounced "Maury") Read's photographs and articles have been featured in numerous magazines, including National Geographic, Bird Watching, Birds & Blooms, and Bird Watcher’s Digest. Marie previously worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as photo/illustrations editor for the Home Study Course in Bird Biology, and later as photo editor/content developer for the All About Birds website. She lives in Freeville, New York.

Read an Excerpt


The Facts of Bird Life

When parents teach their children the facts of life, they often refer to "the birds and the bees," even though birds and bees have entirely different equipment than mammals do and few people have the slightest idea how birds or bees actually "do it." This book aims to shed light on the family lives of birds, a topic that has captured our collective imagination and enriched our language despite being shrouded in mystery.

Diverse Lifestyles

Every species has its own approach to every aspect of reproduction: finding mates, claiming and defending territories (or not claiming one at all), finding or building a nest or other structure in which to deposit eggs, protecting and incubating those eggs (or finding another bird to do it in certain cases), and feeding, protecting, and "educating" the young. In some species, the reproductive process can last a few weeks from start to finish; in others, it lasts for longer than a year.

The processes of bird reproduction are so intertwined that it's difficult to separate them out. For example:

* A male House Wren's territory and nest cavities are his primary ways to attract a mate.

* Herons include nest-building as part of courtship.

* Feeding a prospective mate during courtship helps prime an Evening Grosbeak to feed nestlings.

* Success or failure in rearing their young influences whether a pair of robins will stay together the following breeding season.

This book focuses on the varying ways some familiar species conduct their family lives. Evolution provided each species with different strategies, but in every case the goal, to produce new birds to carry on the parents' genes, is the same.

Courting and Mating

Selecting the right mate is fundamental to a bird's success in keeping its genes alive. Gaudy plumage, healthy feathers, lively singing, and energetic courtship displays play a role in helping females identify the strongest, healthiest males and, in some species, the best potential co-parents. Females often don't display obvious (to human eyes) signals of fitness, but a female's responses to a male's advances help him see how healthy she is and how well she'll raise young.

Mate Fidelity

The fittest male hummingbirds mate with several females. Producing sperm is simpler and less physically taxing than producing eggs, so males may be less concerned than females about the fitness of a potential partner.

In other species, monogamy (one male paired to one female) is the norm. Male crows, swans, and geese commit for life to one mate, and so are as motivated as females to select the fittest mate available. In many species where pairs mate for life, the plumage of both sexes is identical, at least to our eyes.

Far more species are serial monogamists. These birds pair for a single breeding season or raise one brood together and then find new mates to raise another brood that same season.

In the far north, where summer is brief, Bald Eagles must find a mate that will be physiologically synchronized with them almost as soon as they arrive on territory in spring. They must have enough time to produce fertile eggs and raise the young.

Rather than advertising a territory, as do wrens, robins, and blackbirds, birds of this species invest weeks, months, or even years in choosing a mate. Once they commit, they can count on that mate as long as they both survive. Those that remain together throughout winter start courtship behaviors during migration, so both birds will be ready for reproduction soon after they arrive.

Few eagle pairs remain together during winter, but both adults return faithfully to the same territory and nest every spring. Dramatic courtship flights and more practical behaviors, such as repairing the nest, help cement their bond and synchronize their hormonal levels. By returning to the same nest year after year, they don't need to rebuild from scratch.

Pairing for Life

Whether birds mate for life depends partly on whether both can survive the winter and find each other the following breeding season. The oldest known wild Bald Eagle survived more than 32 years, the oldest known wild Whooping Crane lived to be 28, and one Mourning Dove wearing a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leg band survived for more than 30 years. Even tiny birds can have surprisingly long lives: Black-capped Chickadees have lived longer than 11 years, and one miniscule Broad-tailed Hummingbird banded in Colorado was re-trapped, alive and healthy, 12 years later.

Despite their potential longevity, the overall mortality rate for many of these small birds is high, and most songbirds and hummingbirds cannot plan on their mate returning year after year. Some songbirds, such as American Crows and Florida Scrub-Jays, mate for life, often remaining on the same territory year-round. Only if their mate dies do they search for a replacement.

Pairs of many songbirds, such as robins, remain together throughout a whole nesting season, raising two or more broods of chicks. Either or both adults may return to the same or a nearby territory the following year, but neither seems to expect to see their previous mate again; birds of these species often select a new mate each year.

Some species form shorter bonds. A pair of House Wrens raises one batch of young until the chicks leave the nest. After that, one parent, often the female, moves to another territory with a new mate while the remaining parent, often the male, continues to feed and care for the still-dependent fledglings as he attracts a new mate. By splitting up like this, wrens may maximize the number of young produced by both over the course of the summer.

Some birds form very weak or brief attachments with mates. Many male ducks remain with their mates only until the females start incubating or until the eggs hatch. Male grouse and woodcocks display to attract as many females as they can. After mating, the females go off and nest without any assistance.

Enter the Egg

Every bird in the world, be it hummingbird or ostrich, penguin or condor, chickadee or turkey, has something in common: each emerged from an egg. And every one of those eggs started as a single-celled ovum (plural: ova) that popped out of the mother bird's ovary at ovulation.

During most of the year, the sex organs of both male and female birds are excess baggage that would slow them down in flight, so except during breeding season, those organs shrink. Most female birds have one functional ovary which, during most of the year, resembles a tiny cluster of grapes. Each "grape" is an ovum, which may grow and develop, until by ovulation, it's an entire yolk: a huge, single cell that, if fertilized by sperm present before or very soon after ovulation, will turn into a chick.

Eggs Don't Come Cheap

With birds, ovulation always leads to production of an entire egg, which exacts a heavy physical toll on females whether it's fertilized or not. A female Ruddy Duck produces a clutch of eggs that, together, weigh more than she does. Unlike pet parakeets or domesticated chickens, wild birds can't afford to ovulate even once without a strong likelihood that the egg will be fertilized and develop into a healthy chick. Human females may ovulate monthly for years before becoming pregnant, but most birds have physiological adaptations that prevent ovulation until:

* the time of year is right so proper foods are available for their chicks;

* they have found a suitable territory that will provide all they need for constructing a nest and raising young;

* they have secured or constructed a safe location on that territory to deposit their clutch of eggs (usually a nest);

* they have found and mated with a suitable male who can contribute excellent genes to the young and perform the tasks necessary to raise young successfully.

Pairs usually start mating within days of the female's first ovulation. Sperm remain viable inside her body for days or weeks even at high body temperatures, so if a female loses her mate after mating, she may still produce fertile eggs.


When female hormones kick in at the start of the breeding season, stimulated by environmental and behavioral triggers, a few ova start swelling. Increasing day length during late winter and spring is the most universal trigger. But ovulation usually waits until stimulated by key behaviors such as displaying, song duetting, presenting and accepting nest materials to and from a mate, and building the nest.

Depending on the species, courting behaviors may stimulate both male and female hormonal levels and synchronize the pair physiologically. This ensures that females will be producing eggs precisely when males are producing sperm to fertilize them, after the nest is ready to lay them in.

Ovum to Egg

We refer to the ovum as the "egg" in mammals, but with birds this is confusing, because a bird's egg includes much more than an ovum. If sperm reaches the upper part of the oviduct (the tubular passageway from the ovary to the outside of the body) as the ovum passes through, it may fertilize the egg.

Fertilized or not, the ovum gradually makes its way along the oviduct, whose walls first secrete albumen (egg white) and then the minerals that form the shell. Finally the finished egg reaches the cloaca — an expandable, multipurpose chamber in both males and females that provides an entrance into the oviduct for sperm (in females), and an exit from the body for eggs (in females), sperm (in males), and droppings (in both). This process is the same whether the female has mated or not, and the eggs she lays look the same whether they've been fertilized or not.

Nesting and Parenting

Before most female birds ovulate, they need a safe place to deposit and incubate their eggs until hatching. Depending on the species, nest-building can be the responsibility of the mother, both parents, or the father.

Some species make primitive nests, while others erect elaborate structures that can take weeks or months to complete. Some build no nest at all. A female Brown-headed Cowbird lays each of her many eggs in a different bird's nest, but first she does her research. She studies all the birds in her area, choosing nests to parasitize with parents that are likely to warm and protect her eggs until hatching.

The type of nest a bird constructs depends on many factors. Birds that produce precocial chicks often do not build as sturdy nests as birds producing altricial chicks (see box). Some species with precocial young, such as the Killdeer, make just a shallow scrape in sand, gravel, or dirt in which to lay the eggs. To protect against predators, they trust in the adults' distraction displays and the eggs' and adults' cryptic coloration (coloring that conceals or disguises them).

How to Build a Nest

The shape and strength of a bird's bill and feet limit what kinds of materials it can gather and carry, and local habitats determine what nesting materials are available. In some species, birds produce some of their own nest materials, plucking loose belly feathers to line the nest.

The tiny hummingbird female works with lightweight materials that she can easily maneuver and manipulate. The nest must be very tight to hold in her body heat, yet it has to expand to hold her two nestlings as they grow to her size before fledging. She binds thistle down with stretchy spider silk, inserting bits of lichen and moss for sturdiness and camouflage. The nest enlarges during chickhood from an incubator to a crib to a "big kid bed" and will not be reused (except occasionally as a support platform) for a new brood.

Many birds build a new nest each year, and, like hummingbirds, some even build new nests for each of two or three broods in a single season. Nests can become breeding grounds for parasites and germs, and materials can degenerate with weather and nestling activity.

Bald Eagles and Great Blue Herons, on the other hand, repair and rebuild year after year, so their stick nest grows larger and heavier with time. To make it last a lifetime, eagles choose long-lived, sturdy trees such as white pines when they start from scratch.

Most birds with precocial young nest on the ground, so the chicks can easily see and follow the parents. Wood Ducks, mergansers, and some other waterfowl nest in large cavities and nest boxes high in trees. The female often lines the floor with soft down feathers plucked from her belly and breast.

Life in a Cavity

Woodpeckers excavate cavities for nesting, and also for nighttime roosting throughout the year. Chickadees may move into a birdhouse or small woodpecker cavity but often peck out their own cavity. That tiny chickadee bill packs a wallop!

Some birds that nest within cavities, such as all three North American bluebird species, do not have the physical adaptations for excavating. Bluebirds tend to choose unoccupied cavities, while House Sparrows and European Starlings often appropriate ones in use, destroying the nest, killing the young, and sometimes even attacking the adults. Unlike woodpeckers, most of these birds build a nest within the cavity.

Kestrels and screech-owls also nest in cavities or nest boxes, without adding nesting materials.

How Birds Mate

Most birds copulate (mate) frequently before and during egg production, but few do so conspicuously, since they would be vulnerable to predation when not on their guard. Some, such as Great Blue Herons, mate on the nest during nest construction, because nest-building stimulates hormonal levels. Some waterfowl mate on the water; Chimney Swifts, occasionally, in the air. Bald Eagles don't mate during their dramatic midair courtship rituals (see here and here); actual copulation takes place on solid ground or a sturdy branch.

In the act of mating, the male sits on the female's back, flapping his wings or gripping her feathers to keep his balance. She twists her tail upwards and he turns his tail toward hers so that their cloacas meet in what ornithologists romantically call the cloacal kiss. As that happens, millions of sperm enter her body and swim into the oviduct, working their way toward the ovary.

Sperm can survive in the oviduct for several days or even weeks. When one fertilizes an ovum, many of the remaining sperm may be pushed out by the descending egg, so birds tend to mate a few times a day while the female is producing eggs.

Many cavity nesters produce pure white eggs, which may help entering parents spot them in the darkness. Most other eggs are colored in ways that may hide them from potential predators.

Eggshell colors are usually produced by pigments secreted in the oviduct. These pigments, which may also strengthen the shell, usually come from the breakdown of normal body fluids such as bile and hemoglobin.

Laying and Incubating Eggs

During the nesting season most females ovulate once every day or two and lay an egg 12 to 36 hours later, depending on the species. Ovulation ends when the female has laid an entire clutch, whose number of eggs also varies by species. Some species produce many more eggs in years when food is plentiful than when it's scarce. Snowy Owls that lay only three or four eggs most years may produce up to eleven in a single clutch when food is abundant.

Females of some species are determinate layers: they'll produce a certain number of eggs and stop. For example, Mourning Doves always lay two eggs. If one is removed, the female won't replace it. Other species are indeterminate layers. The familiar barnyard chicken can produce eggs indefinitely if they're consistently removed.

If eggs are not removed, a hen will stop laying after her clutch numbers about twelve and will grow broody, meaning she'll start sitting on the eggs to incubate them. Many indeterminate layers with smaller broods (such as Northern Flickers) don't start incubating until they've completed the clutch, and if eggs are removed, they will continue laying until the nest contains the right number.

Inside the Egg

Chicks don't develop very much within an egg until their temperature reaches 98 to 100°F (37 to 38°C). Maintaining that steady temperature is the purpose of incubation. Many nesting birds develop a bare patch of skin on the belly, called the brood patch or incubation patch, so they can press hot skin directly against the eggs or young without feathers blocking body heat. Most birds' internal temperature is above 100°F (38°C), usually from 104 to 108°F (40 to 42°C) and sometimes even higher.

Within the egg, tiny cells divide around a small part of the surface of the yolk. The developing embryo is soon visible as distinct from the yolk, but remains attached at the abdomen to the yolk sac, from which the chick obtains all its nourishment inside the egg. The yolk sac is usually absorbed into the body just before the chick hatches.


Excerpted from "Into the Nest"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Laura Erickson and Marie Read.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part One
The Facts of Bird Life

Courting and Mating
Enter the Egg
Nesting and Parenting

Part Two
The Family Lives of Selected Species

Great Blue Heron
Red-Tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle, and Turkey Vulture
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon and Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Peregrine Falcon
Blue Jay
American Crow
Tree and Barn Swallows
Chickadees and Nuthatches
House Wren
Bluebirds and Robins
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Blackbirds and Orioles
American Goldfinch

  Nesting Facts at a Glance

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author of Audubon Guide to Attracting Birds Stephen W. Kress

Into the Nest explains bird courtship, mating, egg-laying, nest-building, and chick-rearing with clarity and stunningly beautiful photographs. It is an important companion to your field guide.

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