Host Cities and Focal Species

Host Cities

Neighborhood Nestwatch began in 2000 as a pilot project with 45 backyard participants in the Washington, D.C., region. As Nestwatch expands, so does its participant community and its ability to answer vexing ecological questions at different regional scales. Today, the program averages 50-85 participants annually across seven metropolitan regions.

Nestwatch collaborators form a well-rounded team with expertise in both ornithology and informal education. At most regional locations projects are supervised by a Nestwatch associate with an advanced ornithology degree and experience managing field crews. These partners demonstrate a commitment to public education and are often affiliated with a university or science center that helps to facilitate logistics.

Focal Species

Producing credible research not only requires an effective study design but also accurate and plentiful data from which to draw firm conclusions. Given the limited time and resources associated with each Nestwatch season, the list of focal bird species must strike a balance between available time and meaningful coverage of the bird community. This approach allows staff and participants to collect more data on fewer but sufficient numbers of species, leading to more powerful analyses.

The focal species for each Nestwatch region vary, but the selected species are common throughout their respective land-use gradients, relatively easy to capture and diverse in their life strategies (e.g. year-round resident versus migratory, seed-eater versus insectivore, open-cup nester versus cavity nester). Using these criteria, many interesting comparisons can be made within and among species, as well as within and among regions.

Turdus migratorius

Nestwatch Regions: Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado

Summer/Breeding Range: Throughout most of North America. Breeds north to western and northern Alaska

Overwintering Range: Large degree of overlap with breeding range throughout continental U.S., as well as southern portions of Florida, Texas and California, northern Mexico and the western Caribbean

Migration: Short-distance or non-migratory

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Lawns and short grass areas mixed with trees and shrubs, as well as riparian and early-successional forests in the northwest part of its range

Diet: Invertebrates (especially earthworms) and fruit

Nesting Characteristics: First nest built low in an evergreen tree, second nest built higher in a deciduous tree. Nest often built just below a thick layer of foliage, less than 3 meters above the ground. Nest is constructed of leaves and twigs cemented with mud from worm castings. Robin usually constructs a new nest for each brood and has an average of two broods per year. Typically has a clutch of three to five sky blue or blue-green, unmarked eggs. Recognizes brown-headed cowbird eggs and will puncture and remove these from its nest.

Lifespan: Max reported 13 years, 11 months

Conservation and Management: DDT, an insecticide, caused increased mortality and reduced nesting success. Earthworms, a mainstay of the robin's diet, are resistant to the effects of chemicals, so the birds can be poisoned by the worms they consume. Pesticide use is also associated with adult mortality and reduced nesting success, due to fewer earthworms on treated lawns. The American robin population is stable to increasing.

Fun Facts: American robins are the largest, most abundant and most widespread North American thrush species. They moved across the Great Plains with the introduction of earthworms in the early 1900s. Nest monitoring, handling eggs and handling nestlings does not interfere with their nesting success. Three successful broods per year is not uncommon.

Cardinalis cardinalis

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Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts

Year-round Range: Year-round resident in southeastern Canada, eastern and central U.S., and parts of northern, eastern and western Mexico and Central America. Breeding range has expanded north since the mid-1800s, probably because  of warmer climate, human encroachment into forested areas and increased winter food availability from feeding stations, such as bird feeders.

Preferred Habitat: Shrubs, small trees, edge habitats and plantings around buildings

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Dense shrubby areas, such as forest edges, overgrown fields, hedgerows, backyards, marshy thickets, mesquite, regenerating forest and ornamental landscaping

Diet: Primarily seeds, fruit and insects. Can peel grapes using its bill to remove the pulp and seeds, discarding the skin. Prefers sunflower seeds among commercial bird seeds.

Nesting Characteristics: Can start building a nest as soon as late February. High rate of nest failure at all stages. Male and female may select a nesting site in thick tangles of vines or twigs in shrubs and small trees (.25-12 meters high). Female builds the nest, crushing twigs in her bill and bending them around her body as she turns in the nest.  The bowl-shaped nest is made with a rough outer layer, leafy layer, bark layer and grassy lining. Nests are rarely reused.  Typically has a clutch of two to five eggs that are grayish-white, buff-white or greenish-white with pale gray to brown speckles.

Lifespan: Oldest wild female recorded 15 years, 9 months. Oldest wild male recorded 13 years, 2 months

Conservation and Management: Deaths from exposure to various chemicals have been reported. Both males and females will attack their reflection in windows and mirrors. Human alteration of the environment has generally been beneficial, due to an increase in edge habitats.

Fun Facts: The northern cardinal is the state bird of seven U.S. states. Both males and females sing, and males sing throughout the year. Their plumage color is the result of ingestion and deposition of carotenoid pigments obtained from their diet during molting and may signal mate quality. Pairs may remain together throughout the winter but not often between seasons. They compete with the gray catbird and American robin for nest sites and feeding grounds.

Troglodytes aedon

Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado

Summer/Breeding Range: Southern Canada south to lower, middle U.S.

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Edge habitats, open shrubby woodlands, woodlots, forest edges and residential areas with trees

Overwintering Range: Southern U.S. and Mexico

Diet: Mostly small invertebrates

Nesting Characteristics: Readily uses human-made bird houses and will also nest in a variety of crevices or cavities, such as old boots, cow skulls hung on walls, old woodpecker holes, etc. Prefer to nest close to vegetation but not in locations where visibility is low. The male begins to construct the nest with small twigs in an empty cavity, and the female completes the nest with more sticks and a lining of grass, inner bark, hair and feathers after choosing a mate.  A second brood is almost always attempted, and reuse of a cavity is common. Female has a clutch of three to 10 eggs that are white, pink-white or grayish, and speckled or blotched with reddish-brown. Vigorous defender of nest site and will supplant nest competitors (e.g., chickadees, bluebirds) from a preferred site.

Lifespan: Can live more than 7 years

Conservation and Management: Fragmentation of forest has increased suitable habitat. Species is expanding southward.

Fun Facts: House wrens are one of the most thoroughly studied passerines in North America because of their use of human-made nests and because they are ubiquitous. Both males and females sing. Males are very territorial. Pairs do not stay together after the breeding season and may desert and find a new mate for a second breeding attempt during a season. They have been found to prefer boxes with an exterior color of red or green over those that are blue, yellow or white. 

Thryothorus ludovicianus

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Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts

Year-round Range: Eastern and southeastern U.S., northeastern Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Moderate to dense shrub or brushy cover. Prefers moist bottomland to dry upland. Found in wooded residential areas with shrubs.

Diet: Mostly insects and spiders

Nesting Characteristics: The male starts nests in several locations, but the female picks the final site. Nests in tree cavities, vine tangles, conifer branches, overhangs or manmade objects, such as inside garages, bird boxes, mailboxes, pockets of old coats, etc. Both sexes build nest, which is often bulky and loosely constructed with bark strips, dried grass, leaves, sticks, moss, hair, feathers, shed snake skin, paper, plastic and string (1-2 meters high). Three broods can be raised in a season, and a new nest is constructed for each attempt. Average clutch of three to seven eggs. Eggs are white, cream or pinkish-white with fine, rusty-brown spots.

Lifespan: Oldest recapture on record was 6 years, 1 month.

Conservation and Management: Warming climate, reforestation and increase in urban habitats with bird feeders has allowed expansion northward.

Fun Facts: Carolina wren maintains territories year-round. Pair-bonds are maintained for life. Only males sing, and males often match countersing, meaning they respond to two or more individuals by alternating and sometimes overlapping similar songs. This may threaten neighbors by providing strong cues to their distance, as only shared songs provide listeners with good distance cues; birds who hear songs not in their own repertoire are unable to accurately estimate their distance. This phenomenon has been found in other species and may underlie the evolution of song learning in passerines.

Melospiza melodia

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Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado

Summer/Breeding Range: Northern U.S. into southern and central Canada; summer range southern U.S., northern Mexico and farther north through the central U.S.

Year-round Range: Resident through northeastern U.S., south through Appalachians and western U.S.

Overwintering Range: South-central through southeastern U.S.

Migration: Variable depending on location; some short-distance, some long-distance, some non-migratory

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Wide variety of open habitats; often found in shrubby, moist areas. Resident birds are territorial year-round.

Diet: Seeds, fruits and invertebrates (with seeds being more common in the winter and invertebrates primarily in the summer). Prefers millet to other commercial seeds.

Nesting Characteristics: Pair searches for nest site and female builds nest. Nest is a sturdy, open cup made mostly of grass, weed stems, leaves and strips of bark. Common in low grass and shrubs (0-4 meters). Nests almost never reused. Two or three broods per season is common, with up to seven attempts where birds are resident. Typical clutch has one to six eggs that are blue, blue-green or gray-green and spotted with brown, red-brown or lilac. Song sparrows are one of the brown-headed cowbird's favorite host species. 

Lifespan: Maximum 8-9 years

Conservation and Management: Habitat loss is a threat to some of the less common subspecies.

Fun Facts: Song sparrows are one of the most diverse and widespread songbirds in North America, with 24 recognized subspecies (and up to 52 proposed subspecies). Their songs have 'regional dialects' and are usually sung by the male from a high perch. Females will sometimes sing in response to a territory dispute with another female in the spring.

Mimus polyglottos

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Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts

Year-round Range: Throughout the U.S., Mexico, and southern Canada with recent northward expansion. Some pairs stay in one territory year-round, others have distinct breeding and wintering territories.

Migration: Northern populations may be partially migratory. 

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Parks, suburban neighborhoods, cultivated land and second-growth habitat

Diet: About 50 percent fruits and 50 percent arthropods (primarily beetles, ants, bees, wasps and grasshoppers), as well as some earth worms.

Nesting Characteristics: Male may construct as many as three nests before any eggs are laid. The male builds the foundation of twigs, and the female adds a few twigs and the lining (grass, roots, dead leaves, trash). Nests built in shrubs and trees, occasionally on buildings (1-3 meters high). Up to four broods per season. Male commonly cares for fledglings while female incubates the next clutch. Typical clutch has two to six eggs that are pale blue or greenish white, splotched with red or brown.

Lifespan: Not well known; wild birds with established territories have lived 8 years.

Conservation and Management: Introduced in some areas through caged-bird trafficking (popular as "pets" from the 1700s to the early 1900s because of their singing ability); have expanded their range due to forest clearing.

Fun Facts: Males and females sing, but females rarely sing during the summer. Males have a repertoire of often more than 150 song types, which change and increase in number over their lifespan. Spring and fall repertoires are different.  Songs imitate those of other birds, animals, mechanical sounds and songs of other mockingbirds. The song serves mainly to attract females. They are highly territorial. Northern mockingbirds are monogamous, usually for the breeding season and sometimes for life. 

Dumetella carolinensis

Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado

Summer/Breeding Range: Eastern U.S., Great Plains and south-central Canada.

Overwintering Range: South Florida, Caribbean, Jamaica, along Gulf Coast in U.S. and Mexico, and south to Panama. Resident along coast of mid-Atlantic states and in Bermuda.

Migration: Nocturnal neotropical migrant. More immature catbirds found along coasts versus inland during fall migration. Gives mewing call frequently at stopover sites at dusk and dawn.

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Dense shrubs, suburban neighborhoods, shrub-sapling early successional forest. Present in a wider variety of habitats on wintering grounds, including rainforest, pasture and citrus groves.

Diet: Insects (especially ants, caterpillars, moths, beetles, grasshoppers and flies) and small fruits

Nesting Characteristics: Usually nests less than 2 meters above ground. Nest located centrally in surrounding vegetation and may be near trunk of tree. Bulky, open-cup nest with three distinct layers. Usually two to three broods per year, and a typical cutch has one to six eggs that are turquoise green, sometimes with small red spots.

Lifespan: Max reported 17 years, 11 months

Conservation and Management: Human disturbance beneficial when it creates additional early successional habitat. Large numbers killed by tower collisions during nocturnal migration. Breeding population in southeastern U.S. is declining.

Fun Facts: Both sides of the gray catbird's syrinx, or voice box, operate independently, so the bird can sing two songs at once. More than 100 different syllables are incorporated into their calls and song. The gray catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella, which means “small thicket.”

Poecile carolinensis

Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania

Year-round Range: Occurs year-round in southeastern U.S., ranging west to southern Kansas and north to central Pennsylvania and central New Jersey

Migration: Non-migratory

Preferred Breeding Habitat: A variety of deciduous and coniferous forests, wooded neighborhoods and tree-shrub savannas

Diet: Insects, especially lepidoptera and spiders, during spring, summer and fall; insects and fruit during winter. Caches seeds and invertebrates.

Nesting Characteristics: Pairs form in flocks in wintering season. Relies on dead snags or live trees for cavities in which to nest. Pair may excavate and begin building at several sites before settling on where to nest. Will nest in boxes up to 8 meters apart, but no closer than 1.5 meters. Typically one brood per year with an average clutch of three to 10 eggs that are white with fine dots to small blotches of reddish-brown.

Lifespan: Maximum recorded 10 years, 11 months

Conservation and Management: Deforestation has decreased available habitat, but availability of food from feeders and nest boxes has been a benefit. Nest destruction by house wrens is more likely in suburban areas and may be causing a decline in population.

Fun Facts: Carolina chickadees are active and aerobatic when gleaning insects and spiders from branch tips. Between 40 and 60 percent survive the winter due to specialized adaptations to reduce cold stress, such as regulated nocturnal hypothermia. They have a broader song repertoire than related black-capped chickadees, and hybrids between the two exist where ranges overlap. The pair-bond between a male and female Carolina chickadee can remain intact for several years.

Poecile atricapillus

Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado

Year-round Range: Widespread across northern half of U.S., and southern Canada. Occurs year-round in south-central and southern U.S., and southern Midwest. In scarce food years, individuals may move in “irruptions” well beyond normal range.

Migration: Non-migratory

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Deciduous and mixed deciduous/coniferous woodland, open woods and parks, willow thickets

Diet: Caterpillars, insects, spiders, small snails, slugs, centipedes and berries during breeding season; eggs and pupae of insects and spiders, weed and conifer seeds, and small, wax-covered berries (such as poison ivy and bayberry) during non-breeding season

Nesting Characteristics: Nests in natural or artificial cavity from ground level up to 20 meters high. Usually excavate several cavities before final nest site is chosen. Excavation conducted by both sexes but subsequent building done by female in four to five days. Typically one brood per year with average clutch of one to 13 eggs that are white and marked with fine dots or spots of reddish-brown.

Lifespan: Average lifespan 2.5 years (longevity record is 12 years). Vulnerable to starvation during winter and young vulnerable to starvation upon fledging

Conservation and Management: Forest clearing for agriculture can increase forest edge, a preferred habitat for chickadees. Chickadees can breed successfully (though at lower densities) in suburban landscapes where dead trees are available. Where natural nest sites are rare, nest boxes may be accepted, especially if partially filled with sawdust. Boxes having holes 1.13–1.25 inches (2.86–3.18 centimeters in diameter) are best, as these eliminate larger competitors, such as house sparrows.

Fun Facts: The black-capped chickadee's use of a nest box increases if it is partially filled with shavings. Under extreme cold conditions, individuals lower their body temperature at night and enter regulated hypothermia, saving significant amounts of energy. Individuals can store food and have exceptional spatial memory to relocate cached items. Socially, males dominate females within chickadee groups and in males, dominance rank is associated with age, although it is dependent on other factors as well, which render important advantages for breeding and resource competition.

Baeolophus bicolor

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Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Florida, Georgia

Year-round Range: Widespread within eastern half of U.S., from west-central Texas to southeast Minnesota eastward. Some populations may move south during winter.

Migration: Non-migratory

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Mostly deciduous forests, but also mixed deciduous-coniferous forests, swamps, orchards, parks and suburban areas

Diet: Combination consisting mostly of insects and a lesser proportion of acorns, seeds and fruits

Nesting Characteristics: Nests in pre-excavated natural cavities 1-28 meters high. Nest built by female in four to 11 days using damp leaves, green moss, dried grass, hair, strips of bark and sometimes feathers. Typically one brood per season with an average clutch of three to nine eggs that are white and marked with fine dots or spots of reddish-brown or purple.

Lifespan: Average lifespan in Missouri approximately 2.1 years (longevity records between 7 and 13 years). Annual survival challenged by winter conditions

Conservation and Management: Because this species breeds in natural tree cavities, excessive tree felling could decrease its numbers. Availability of nest sites (cavities) may limit numbers in some areas. Addition of nest boxes and tree plantations can increase tufted titmouse abundance.

Fun Facts: Tufted titmice hoard food in fall and winter. They store seeds away from feeders in the bark of small tree branches. They nest in cavities already excavated by various woodpecker species. Tufted titmice were significantly impacted by West Nile virus, especially populations in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

Sayornis phoebe

Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Massachusetts

Summer/Breeding Range: East of Continental Divide extending from northern Canadian provinces into southeastern U.S.

Overwintering Range: Mostly in the southeast U.S. Southern limit extends well into Mexico along the Atlantic slope south to central Veracruz

Migration: As in much of the post-breeding and wintering activities, individuals are solitary during migration. Lack of eastern phoebes killed at television towers nocturnally suggests diurnal migration

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Woodland and edge in the vicinity of water

Diet: Principle mode of feeding is flycatching; eats mostly flying insects with smaller proportions of terrestrial arthropods and some fruit. Will resort to seeds and other fruit in fall

Nesting Characteristics: Nest in artificial structures, such as bridges, culverts, buildings, as well as natural rock outcroppings where nest is protected from the elements and predators. Prefers nest sites close to overhead cover. Nest built by female using mud, green moss, some leaves and lined with fine grass stems and hair. Nest takes seven to 14 days to complete. Typically two to three broods per year with an average clutch of two to six eggs that are white with occasional reddish-brown dots

Lifespan: Max reported 10 years, 4 months

Conservation and Management: Human disturbance is beneficial when it creates additional early successional habitat. The breeding population in the southeastern U.S. is declining.

Fun Facts: The insect order Hymenopetera makes up 26 percent of the eastern phoebe's annual diet, with peak use in late summer. Evidently, a quick kill of these species prevents problems with stings. Old nests, even from other species such as swallows, are frequently renovated and reused, both from year to year and for multiple broods within a year.

Toxostoma rufum

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Nestwatch Focal Species Regions: Florida, Georgia

Summer/Breeding Range: East of Rocky Mountains from southern Canada south to east-central Texas, the Gulf Coast and east to Atlantic coast

Overwintering Range: Some overlap with breeding range in southern U.S.; southeastern U.S., from central Texas and Oklahoma east to central Florida and north to southeastern North Carolina, primarily along the Gulf and coastal plains

Migration: Short-distance migrant within U.S.

Preferred Breeding Habitat: Thickets, hedgerows, forest edges and overgrown clearings in deciduous forest; farther west in the Great Plains, fencerows, shelterbelts and woody draws

Diet: Insects and other arthropods along with some fruits, seeds and nuts. Feed by sweeping their long bills through leaf litter to uncover insects and other invertebrates

Nesting Characteristics: Usually nest low in a tree or thorny shrub. Nest is a bulky cup made of twigs, dead leaves, thin bark, grass stems and well-cleaned rootlets. Typically one to two broods per season with an average clutch of two to six eggs that are pale blue, greenish-blue or white, with many red-brown speckles.

Lifespan: Max reported 12 years, 10 months

Conservation and Management: Numbers have been declining over last several decades. Shrubby habitat is now declining throughout the eastern U.S., as fields and forests regrow or are cleared altogether. Competition with northern mockingbirds may be affecting their numbers in northern parts of their range. Brown thrashers often die in collisions with television towers during migration or with cars, because they often live in roadside habitats. They can become unintended casualties of pesticides that people use to control insects.

Fun Facts: An aggressive defender of its nest, the brown thrasher is known to strike people and dogs hard enough to draw blood. Brown thrashers are accomplished songsters that may sing more than 1,100 different song types and include imitations of other birds, including chuck-will’s-widows, wood thrushes and northern flickers.