Friday, June 19, 2009
Nest Building Fools
I have been watching my finches for quite a while now, and without a doubt the coolest thing about them for me is their penchant for building nests. They appeared compelled to do it. From my recent experience with other types of caged birds, the nest building proclivities of the finch is certainly unique.
For instance, unlike the industrious finches the love birds were definitely not nest builders; they were anything but. From the beginning they concentrated on three undertakings; none of them good.
First, they sought to establish their dominion over the other cage residents by using constant bullying and harassing tactics. Seeing that turned me against them with a passion. I hate bullies.
Second, like large yellow and red feathered crawling bird spiders, they poked and prodded every inch of the cage from top to bottom, always apparently seeking a way out; and within a week, one of them actually managed to do exactly that. For a day or so it hung around the top of the cage near its mate, but it finally gave up and flew off for good (and good riddance).
(Similarly, one of my finches once darted out the cage door as I opened it. For over an hour it flitted around the cage seemingly desperate to get back inside to its mate. I figured recovering it was next to hopeless, but hope returned when my daughter excitedly pointed out the little escapee where it sat only a few feet from me on the lip of the low concrete base of my porch. It just perched there looking up at me without moving. I grabbed a nearby towel, walked up to the little bird, now completely calm and quiet, and carefully dropped the towel over it. The tiny thing did not struggle and did not attempt to fly away as it would normally have done. With all certainty, I can say without a doubt that it wanted me to catch it. That was the strangest thing.)
And finally, the dastardly lovebirds were driven by some evil impulse to destroy every bit of foliage they could reach with their powerful sharp beaks. From all my negative experiences with these beautiful, yet hellish creatures, here’s another name I coined for them—“pain in the butt birds.”
The parakeets were okay, but they were boring and produced an irritating screech. Unlike all the other types of birds in my cage these two were NOT inseparable. They would sit together at times, but often they chose to perch in separate locations and often did so even at night when all the other paired birds stayed side by side.
The cockatiels were like lumbering winged bulls. They’d fly in their awkward fashion with a loud rustling of flapping wings, usually crash-landing into the side of the cage where they would then use beaks as hands to pull themselves along to their desired spot. A strange thing about the cockatiels was their obsession with the finch nests, especially the female cockatiel. I watched her poke her head inside every nest she could reach. I have no idea what drove her to do this, but her days became numbered when she started doing that with nests containing finch fledglings.
I must admit my own cockatiel-like obsession with the finch nests. For me, the sight of these grassy nest balls represents an incredible natural mystery. What intrigues me isn’t the nest architecture so much as the nest builder, the finches themselves.
Think about it. Before obtaining these delightful little "flitters of fluff" they had spent their entire lives inside a relatively tiny cage filled with dozens of other finches. All they had ever known was this cramped world where the full flight of more than a beat or two of their wings was impossible. In such a restricted environment the building of nests is impossible; yet, as soon as I put them inside my big bird cage they became nest building fools.
The mystery then is how did these finches know how to build nests? Of course the scientists attribute such things to natural instinct, but why didn’t the lovebirds, cockatiels and parakeets have this useful manufacturing insight?
From what I can see, finches do not always build nests only for procreation purposes, although they certainly do that too; but at nighttime, pairs of them nestle deep within their insulated balls of grass for a good night’s sleep, while the architecturally-challenged parakeets and cockatiels miserably huddled on their perches completely exposed to the weather.
Again, I’m amazed at the uniformity of the finch nests. I mean, these birds do not take nest building classes all from the same community finch college, yet all the nests are alike in construction right down to the round opening just large enough for a finch to pass through. Where does this knowledge come from? I repeat, it's a mystery.
They even have a preference when it comes to building materials. The first time I noticed my finches beginning to build nests with the limited resources within the cage I began to bring inside for their use assorted types of natural stuff like lengths of different types of grass and even different kinds and lengths of string and thread. They ignored the string and thread and went right for the tendril creepers that I pulled from the various types of Bermuda grass in my yard. Evidently the combination of the stiffness of the creeper stem combined with the attached grass blades provides the perfect amalgamation of structure and insulation.
Every two or three days I’ll collect another mass of grass creepers from the yard and drop the clump on the ground inside the cage. Within seconds of closing the door the finches fly down and begin to inspect the latest “supplies.” Yank by miniscule yank they pull the individual strands from the grassy mound.
A fun thing is to see them argue and vie over the best bits. To see two angry finches get into a tug-of-war over an 8 inch creeper tendril never ceases to make me chuckle. Those little fellas really get into it. Here there are at least 25 or 30 lengths to choose from and two finches will get into a tugging match over one. Funny little things.
Their display of persistence and strength is another really cool thing to behold. For some reason they really prefer the extra long grass tendrils. I’ll include a few pieces almost a foot long, which they love. A bird will pull one around on the ground with its orange beak this way and that until it has it lined up exactly the way it wants. Then, taking a firm grip close to one end, it will take off diagonally upward aimed at a perch across the cage from its final destination in one of the four woven nest balls I mounted from hooks under the eaves of the porch.
This initial leg of the trip, carrying this long tendril of grass, takes a lot of energy and they are only half way there. First taking a few moments to gather themselves while also resetting the grip of their beak on the length of grass, they fly with an exaggerated rustle of wings to a point about 12 inches from the nest ball entrance where they hover for a split second before darting forward into the nest. I love sitting behind the bar on my porch with a cup of coffee to watch the intriguing proceedings.
In nature, finches build their nests in spots that lends itself to easy nest building, a spot where they also feel secure and out of the elements. The resulting structure ends up being a thick mass of grass with a hollow inside large enough for two or three adult finches to huddle together side by side. Of course they leave a small round opening to gain access.
Inside my big bird cage the nest building finches use the rattan nest balls and wooden boxes provided by me to construct nests more suitable for egg laying and subsequently to raise to fledgling status the resultant hatchlings.
After a time the finches invariably abandon all their nests, at which point I scoop out the old nest so they can rebuild in that spot. I have no idea why they do this; perhaps the decomposition of the grass combined with the buildup of bird droppings makes the nest repellent to them. It only makes sense right? Smart birds these finches.