The old field is filled with old feathered friends


Almost overnight, the old field below the house has greened up, and birds have set up nesting territories.

Bluebirds were the first to lay eggs because the nest box protects the eggs from the elements. Within just a few weeks, however, field sparrows, indigo buntings, white-eyed vireos, and cardinals have also established territories.

Nest on ground

Native sparrows often place their first nest of the year on the ground. There’s really little choice if they hope to hide it from predators. Woody vegetation is still leafing out, so the best cover is on the ground under tufts of dead grass entwined with new growth.

In one published account describing 173 field sparrow nests in May, 135 were on the ground. In July, none of 240 nests were on the ground.

An early nest is one way to avoid a variety of snakes that devour eggs and chicks. If these birds can fledge one brood before snakes get too active, the nesting season is more likely to be successful.

Found one near trail

I was hardly surprised to find a field sparrow nest just off one of the trails because a male has been defending a territory since early April. Its rusty crown, pale orange bill, and wing bars made identification easy.

The male’s song, a series of whistles that accelerates into a trill much like a ping pong ball bouncing on a table, is also distinctive. I resisted the urge to find the nest because I didn’t want accidentally step on it and crush the eggs.

Indigo bunting

After hearing an indigo bunting sing, I turned my attention to a multiflora rose thicket. The brambles form an almost impenetrable barrier, so I just watched and listened. (Scroll down for a video and audio of an indigo bunting.)

Male indigos are easy to find and even easier to recognize. They sing a complicated song consisting of a series of double notes from high atop exposed perches. They want to be seen. And no other bird shares its deep metallic blue body.

Female indigos, on the other hand, are drab, secretive little brown birds. I knew I’d never be able to find the bunting nest in this thicket, but I must have been close. The female suddenly appeared and scolded me. Her alarm notes attracted her mate’s attention, and he joined in the nest’s defense.

Next sighting

I took the hint and left to search for a white-eyed vireo singing on the other side of the field.

At a glance, vireos resemble warblers, but vireos are duller, heavier, and have a stouter bill. The tip of the bill is slightly hooked for subduing struggling insect prey.

Another common trait is that vireos suspend their nests from the forks of small branches or twigs. But it’s not a hanging basket like an oriole nest; it’s simply a suspended cup, usually woven with fine plant fibers and spider silk. Find such a cup, and you’ve found a vireo nest.

Hard to see

Though vireos can be difficult to see, the white-eyed vireo stays closer to the ground and sometimes sings from exposed perches above dense vegetation.

Look for white-eyes along forest edges and overgrown old fields. Field marks to note include olive green body, two white wing bars, yellow spectacles, and white irises.

I never found the nest, but the male sang persistently so it had to be nearby. Its song is loud, emphatic, and not particularly musical. I learned it as, “Chick! Chick-a-per-whir! Chick!” but I prefer the phrasing included in some field guides: “Quick! Pick up the beer check! Quick!”

Hello, Mr. Cardinal

Finally I turned my attention to the male cardinal that had been singing all morning. I noticed the much drabber female slink from a blackberry bush, and sure enough, the nest contained two eggs.

I suspect she would lay three more eggs over the next three days to complete the clutch.

A cardinal song is easy to recognize because it always includes slurred whistles. “What cheer! What cheer!” or “Purdy, purdy, purdy,” are just two of many familiar phrases that help identify cardinals by sound.

Will find my feeder

Finding a cardinal nest always gives me hope. After raising a brood, parent cardinals escort their brood to my feeding station. Then the elders introduce the young to their favorite fast food — sunflower seeds.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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