A Common Yellowthroat baby Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Birds have scolded me a great deal lately. Often, I didn’t deserve it. It’s gotten so that I can tell which bird is cussing me out just by the sound.

I’ve been walking miles of back roads over the last seven weeks as a volunteer for the Maine Bird Atlas project. This has led me close to a lot of nesting birds, resulting in a spate of avian tongue-lashings.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is sponsoring the Atlas project. In a nutshell, the entire state has been divided into 9-square-mile blocks. Volunteers survey these blocks, listing every bird they can find, with an emphasis on figuring out which birds are making babies. Because there are hundreds of bird species in Maine, and each species has a specific habitat preference, the atlas is a useful tool for assessing landscape changes in the environment over time. Breeding surveys are repeated every 20 to 30 years.

Currently, Maine, New York, Maryland and North Carolina are all doing an atlas. Over the last weekend of June, the four states staged a light-hearted competition to see which could do the best job of finding baby-making birds. Maine won. I’d like to say it’s because the Maine volunteers are better birders, but it’s probably because we’ve had more practice. Maine’s project is in its fourth year. The other states have started more recently.

As you can imagine, birds would like to keep their baby-making private. If you get too close to the nest, you’re apt to get scolded. But the type of scolding varies through the season. Now that I’ve had four years of practice, I can actually tell what nesting stage the birds are in. You can, too.  

When the returning migrants first arrive, there’s a lot of singing to defend territory and woo mates. The birds aren’t particularly concerned by your presence. As soon as the first egg is laid, the females virtually disappear. They spend most of their time on the nest, sitting quietly, hoping you won’t notice them. When they do leave the nest to feed, they do it as secretly as possible, so as not to give away their location. During this period, the male may protest if you get too close to the hiding place, but he, too, is anxious to avoid calling too much attention.

As soon as the chicks are hatched, both parents get more vocal. After all, eggs are silent, babies not so much.

The risk of discovery has increased, and both genders get more active with their scolding. They’ll sound the alarm when you are farther away, and fly closer to challenge you.

Once the chicks fledge and leave the nest, they are at their most vulnerable, and their parents are at their most hyper-vigilant. I’ve had them start scolding me when I’m 100 yards away. It’s kind of silly. They may want me to keep away, but they’re actually announcing, “Hey you! I’ve got babies over here!”

This dynamic happens mostly with birds that stay close to the ground. Most sparrows do it, especially white-throated sparrows. I reckon I’ve already received a tongue-lashing from hundreds of them this year. Song sparrows also do it, perhaps even in your own backyard.

Common yellowthroats are champions at scolding. Ovenbirds and Canada warblers stay closer to the ground than most warblers, and several of them gave me a real piece of their mind last week. Birds that nest higher in the tree are less likely to scold. They correctly figure that you’re not climbing up there to get them. I’ve been amused by several black-throated blue warblers, though. When the chicks first leave the nest, they tend to stay close to the ground. I had one adult female blow a fuse when I was just walking by. She was so upset, she actually revealed where her chick was hidden just by her display of utter panic. I hurried off.

Some bird families are not particularly bothered by people. Most flycatchers couldn’t care less. They know they can outfly whatever you have in mind. Woodpeckers mostly don’t object to your presence. Thrushes care, but not very much. The only exception I’ve experienced this spring is when I accidentally walked too close to a Swainson’s thrush fledgling. The mother sounded like she wanted to kill me.

Tongue-lashing season is nearly over. The kids will be on their way, and their parents will resume ignoring you.

But now you know what to listen for next year.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.