By Dennis Prichard
I hadn’t been on the trail ten minutes when a bird shot past my face in a blur. In an instant my mind transported me back to the mid-1970s at the Oklahoma University Biological Station where, on a similar hike, a cardinal had shot out of a hedge right past my face. My Animal Behavior professor, Dr. Carpenter, stopped the whole class dead in its tracks. He pointed out how close that cardinal had come to my face, which was unusual behavior indeed. We looked cautiously into the hedge to find a cup-nest with baby cardinals inside. That’s why she had waited until the very last second to flee, and in doing so tried to divert my attention away from the nestlings.
So it had been indelibly burned into my brain to know that if a bird acts like this, it must mean only one thing. I began to look for a nest, and all I had to do was turn my head. There, in a hollow knot in a juniper, was the beginning of a small, hidden nest. Of what type of bird I didn’t know, but I was soon told.
There was an immediate fierce scolding from a Carolina wren soon to be joined by its mate. Male and female look alike and both build the nest, so I couldn’t ascertain which had been brave enough to fly so close to me, a giant walking the woods. The tongue-lashing didn’t go unnoticed by me, so I backed off down the trail and stood stone-still near another juniper branch.
After a few minutes of “freezing” in place, I watched the two wrens test the situation for the “all-clear.” Cautiously, and ever so slowly, the two would return to the area where the nest was. They both hop-scotched forward, then retreated back to a limb farther away. It was if I had tainted the spot with my presence, and they weren’t sure if I would come back. They eventually calmed down enough to fly to the cavity in the tree trunk and land only a short distance away for a split second before rebounding back to an overlooking branch.
I was thoroughly amused and got ready to continue on the hike when two other players appeared on the scene. Black-crested titmice came in with a ruckus. They are slightly larger than the wrens but three times louder. This must have given them enough bravado to take on the wrens for ownership of the nest site. It wasn’t an easy victory though. The wrens scolded even more than when I had interloped, and the titmouse pair tried everything they could to claim the prize. It even came to violence as one titmouse physically pushed a wren off its perch.
I wondered if nesting spots are so rare that different species have to fight over them. Surely there were enough holes and cavities in the forest of junipers that all could share. What characteristics caused this particular one to be so valuable? And which species was the rightful owner of the nest?
Some species are so particular that they cannot tolerate even the smallest change to their way of living. This is why those that are the most reluctant to change, or resistant to adaptation, are the ones on the brink of extinction. These endangered species may be stubborn, but they make the best indicators of environmental health. Since they live on the edge, the loss of any one of them tells us that one more thing is wrong with the forces that keep all life going. What happens to one, happens to all.
I didn’t stay to witness who would be the victors of this nesting melee. I sauntered off down the trail where I kept my eyes peeled for another unanticipated adventure.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.
Read previous RoVing Naturalist articles here.