Home Building in Birdland

Cactus Wren Nest Building

Cactus wren with paper shred to line its nest in a cholla

Suddenly, all the wayward string, sticks, fibers, feathers, paper, and cushion stuffing have become hot commodities around our yard. Now that nest-building season has arrived, what was earlier considered debris has become treasure to the birds living throughout Songbird Cottage’s yard.

Verdin Nest in Wild Plum

Spiny fortress woven by Verdins in our Wild Plum, made from stems of the same plant, with the entrance hole at the bottom right side of the nest

The path-side, spiny trimmings from our wild plums (Ziziphus parryi, also known as Parry Abrojo) that we had temporarily set beside the pathway have now been picked over by a pair of industrious verdins, and incorporated into their nest – smack in the center of the thorny plant’s protection. How such a tiny bird could so adeptly weave spine-armored twigs into a tight, round nest is amazing…with only one spot left unwoven: the entrance hole at the very bottom of the whole heap. No predator would dare venture into this spiny castle.

The seat cushion on the porch with a small hole at its seam has just become deflated where the stuffing has been repeatedly pulled out to line the new nests of cactus wrens, antelope ground squirrels, and likely other mothers-to-be.

Not only are the birds doing their own housekeeping, they are helping us with ours. I was delighted to see an Anna’s hummingbird hovering at the top of our window outside, collecting spider webs in its long bill. Webs are the perfect cement to glue together all the insulating materials that hummingbirds gather to line their nest to keep mom and babies warm at night as she slips into her nightly torpor to conserve energy. It is vital that she captures her daytime body warmth in her nest at night, so she uses cobwebs to secure all the insulating leaves, lichens, cast feathers, and other cuddly treasures to make sure she and her brood get through the night.

Yucca leaves with fibers

Mojave Yucca leaves waiting for fiber collection

But the big mystery – the migrating yucca leaves on our back porch – has finally been solved. I had neatly stacked a bundle of trimmed Mojave Yucca leaves on a porch table, as I wanted to peel off the long, curly fibers that give the plant its specific name (Yucca schidigera, Latin for “bearing a splinter of wood,” referring to the fibers along the edges of the leaf blades).

Yucca Fibers in bouquet

Curling yucca fibers add whimsy to this bouquet of California buckwheat flowers

These fibers give wonderfully artistic accents to any bouquet, gift bow, or arrangement, so I set the leaves aside until I could harvest the fibers.

Over the course of a week, whenever my husband and I passed by the patio table, we would find several of the three-foot leaves on the ground. We were puzzled, but kept restacking the errant leaves on the table. This morning, I heard my husband break out laughing as he called to me, “Hey, Robin! Come see who is tearing into your yucca leaves!” The culprit: a cactus wren, wrestling long fibers off the leaves, sometimes following the fibers down off the table in its tug-of-war to glean coveted material for its new family’s nest in our nearby cholla.

Cactus Wren Nest - Yucca fibers in Cholla

Cactus wren nest in cholla, woven mostly with Mojave Yucca fibers

With all this homebuilding activity, it won’t be long before we see all this hard work produce a new generation of songbirds.


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