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Cordilleran flycatchers have little luck with nesting spots

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By Sylvia Brockner

Although spring migration has long been over, we had a bit of excitement in the yard this week.

The house wrens have long been nesting in a swallow box on the supporting post of the front porch. In fact, they are feeding young. Although it is supposed to be a swallow box, the swallows have never had a chance to use it because the wrens arrive earlier and have already taken it over. They usually have eggs in the box by the time the violet-green swallows arrive. That was the case this year.

However, a cordilleran flycatcher decided to build a nest on the top of the box. Needless to say, the house wrens took a different view of this idea, and every time the flycatcher arrived with a mouthful of nesting material, she was met by an angry wren and forced to hurriedly drop the material and flee.

Since the birdhouse has a pitched roof, nothing stayed put and was blown or slipped away by the time she returned with another mouthful. The wrens were still just as pugnacious, so after three evenings of warfare, the flycatcher gave up.

I have not been able to find where she moved to, but at this late date, it was probably a second nesting. I hope she did better than with the first attempt.

Cordilleran flycatchers choose the worst sites for a nest of any bird I have ever seen. Shortly after we moved here, I met Edna Claire Thomas, and she called one day to tell me her neighbor had a bird nest that was falling down, and they wanted to know what to do.

I went to see it, and sure enough, it was a cordilleran flycatcher’s nest. In the days when Evergreen was largely a summer colony, cordilleran flycatchers frequently nested on the open rafters of cabin porches. I once found one in a niche on a big boulder. A week later I found it destroyed by a red squirrel or chipmunk. It was easily within reach of either.

I suppose that after years of finding porch rafters to be successful nest locations, they abandoned the old ways of nesting in trees and rocks. However, most porches are gone.

They also frequently nested on porch lights, but these were not very successful because the lights were frequently on all night and next to the door where people went in and out constantly. The one I saw last Sunday was in a beautiful wreath that the homeowner had hung on her door for spring. It was a sturdily constructed wreath of greenery with small white flowers on a strong frame.

The nest was built on the inner part of the wreath where it had the full bottom for support. There were two or three young in the nest. I couldn’t be sure because they were large, nearly ready to fledge, and the adults would not come to the nest while we were parked in front of it.

At this home, the door stoop had a roof, and the nest was in a good location. The owners had put a big X across the posts and a notice to use the garage door instead.

Over the years I have seen at least a half-dozen cordilleran flycatchers’ nests that have been built on a narrow 1-inch outside windowsill. This is what Edna Claire had shown me some 40 years ago. I rescued that nest by tacking a strip of canvas up, well to the left and slightly above the nest, then opening it out under the nest. I gathered it together again at the right end to make a little hammock to hold it.

It worked, and she hatched the two eggs that hadn’t already fallen and raised the young to fledge. Since that time, I have had several other people call me with the same problem and suggested they try the same plan. In most cases, they have called to say it worked.

Cordilleran flycatchers are entirely insect eaters and so are great to have around. They feed their young on the same food, and that means a lot of mosquitoes and flies are eaten, as well as other insects. I am delighted to have fewer mosquitoes around, for they can easily find me, and I really don’t like bug spray all over me.

They are like all of the Empidonax flycatchers in that they are very difficult to identify. They are all little olive-green birds, some with eye rings and wing bars, some without. In recent years, many of them have been divided into new species, and the only way you can be positive about their identification is to hear the male singing in the spring, and then you have to have a good musical ear. I hope to encourage more cordilleran flycatchers next year by putting up some shelves for them to nest on. Wish me luck.