Last spring, we moved from a house by the prairie to a house on the lake. It’s only three miles door-to-door, so I didn’t think the change would affect my birding much. But location matters to the birds as much as it does to us, maybe even more.
Living on a lake naturally means that water fowl like Canada geese and mallards are seen daily, while the prairie-loving western meadowlarks and red-tailed hawks are never seen. But I didn’t expect there to be any change in sightings of birds I think of as urban and ubiquitous: robins, chickadees, blue jays, and doves. I was wrong.
At the old house, I saw robins nearly every day. Robins migrate, flying a thousand miles or more, so three miles is nothing to them. And yet, I’ve seen two robins in the six months we’ve been at the new house. Mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves, which were common near the prairie, are also scarce by the lake.
On the other hand, blue jays and black-capped chickadees were rare visitors at our old house, while our new neighborhood has flocks of them. I see and hear them every time I go for a walk.
What’s going on? Ducks need lakes and meadowlarks need prairie. Those habitat differences are as obvious to us as the difference between living in the country or the city. But both neighborhoods have lawns, trees, and houses. The climate and weather conditions are the same. Why do robins prefer the old neighborhood? Why do jays prefer the new one?
The short answer is the trees. The trees in the new neighborhood are older, larger, and more varied in species than at the old house. As cavity nesters, chickadees need dead or dying trees to raise their young. The trees at the old house are still too young to provide the chickadees with nest sites. Blue jays are omnivorous, but they love acorns, so mature oak trees may be drawing them in. For both these birds, this one difference in the location matters.
But what about the robins and the doves? While American robins do inhabit forests, they rely on open grass for earthworms. Maybe the denser tree cover, which makes for smaller open areas, reduces their food source. Or it’s possible that how the homeowners care for their lawns makes it a bad place for robins to breakfast.
Food is the reason the doves aren’t by the lake. Both mourning doves and Eurasian collared-doves eat seeds from grasses and grains. The natural area behind the old house is a sea of wild grasses, providing the food they need. The area around the lake is cultivated. Most of the grasses growing there get mowed before they can seed.
When we were shopping for houses last winter, our top criterion was location. We needed to be in the right school district. We didn’t even look at houses that weren’t in the right area. Likewise, birds must find the right location for their nests. Unfortunately for them, it’s harder to get a nest site that includes the rest of the necessities: shelter, food, and water.
We have it much easier. The majority of houses provide shelter, running water, heat, and electricity. We don’t even put those things on the shopping list; they are a given. But potential nest sites don’t come with guarantees, and birds have to be a lot pickier than we are when they choose their homes. That explains why I don’t see the same distribution of birds at the new house as I did at the old house, and also why I won’t complain as much the next time I have to buy a house. I’ll remember instead just how easy I have it.