Springtime Birds at a Horse Stable in Northern California

Caitlin Dempsey


The arrival of spring is noticeably busier at a Northern California horse stable when it comes to bird life. The chatter and activity of birds is everywhere. This stable is located in the urban wildland interface, one of a multitude of horse barns tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains surrounded by temperate forests and chaparral. The abundance of water, sheltered stalls for nesting, and food in the source of feed and insects makes horse stables like this one an appealing place for some wildlife.

Micro Geography of Bird Life at a Horse Stable

A walk through the grounds is an interesting lesson in observing the micro geography of wild birds and how they inhabitant spaces at the horse stable. This particular stable has been in operation for close to 100 years and native edge species have adapted to the human disturbance created by an active horse operation. Within this stable, different species of birds have established distinctive areas for nesting and feeding.

A California quill running across the ground.
A California quail races across the road at the entrance to the horse stable. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

At the entrance to the stable, wild turkey and California qual (Callipepla californica) can be seen passing through. “Gobble, gobble, gobble” alerts the listener to a flock of wild turkeys foraging among the trees. These turkeys never venture too far into the stable grounds, preferring the abandoned pasture area located near the entrance.

A wild turkey walking in the grass among the trees.
A wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) foraging in the forest. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) are not native to California. These large birds were introduced in the 1870s by the California Fish and Game Commission for hunting. Originally native to the Southwest, wild turkeys are now found in about 25% of the state.

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Lower Area of the Stables

Acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) have staked out the lower arena, flying between their granaries and the nearby oak trees where they roost and set up nests inside tree cavities.

Granaries are where acorn woodpeckers store acorns. Granaries are made up of hundreds or thousands of holes drilled into trees and wooden structures such as utility poles and barns. Between wooden posts and barns that date back to the 1930s, there are plenty of wooden structures in this area of the stable for the woodpeckers to drill holes in which they carefully stuff acorns.

A woodpecker with a red capped head inspects an acorn stuck into a whole in the side of a barn.
Acorn woodpeckers spend a significant amount of time each day tending to their granaries. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Acorn woodpeckers form social groups, known as bushels, to establish and defend granaries that can reach 50,000 acorns in size. Both male and female acorn woodpeckers have black and white bodies with red caps although there are subtle differences in the patterns between the two sexes.

A group of woodpeckers sitting on top of a wood post that has holes with acorns fitted in to them.
A bushel of acorn woodpeckers guard their granary in a wooden utility pole. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Acorn woodpeckers call “whacka whacka whacka” as they check and move acorns around in their granary. Each acorn is carefully fit to be snug into each hole. As the acorn dries and shrinks, the woodpeckers will move the acorn to a smaller hole. Wedging acorns into tight spaces helps to prevent theft by jays and other opportunistic birds.

A blue jay with a crested head sits on a branch in a tree.
Steller’s jay in an oak tree. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Nearby, Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri) screech noisily as they call to one another from the trees. These jays used to be the only crested jays west of the Rocky Mountains although climate change has enabled the Blue Jay to expand past this geographic barrier. Unlike the scrub jays that venture into the upper area of the stable, the Steller’s jays tend to stick to areas away from human activity.

A blue bird with an off white underbelly standing on the gravel.  In the background is an out of focus ground squirrel feeding.
A scrub jay searches for seed on the ground along with a California ground squirrel. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Upper Area of the Stables

The upper area houses most of the stalls and the larger horse arena for riding. The activity of acorn woodpeckers is replaced here by Brewer’s blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and the migratory barn swallows.

Barn Swallows

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) incessantly flit back and forth in the skies over the horse stable in the spring time. Barn swallows are voracious hunters, catching as many as 60 insects per hour and up to 850 a day.

The barn swallows have migrated north for their breeding season from wintering areas in Central and South America. Known as “leap-frog migration” these barn swallows fly over the year-round resident barn swallows that live in Southern California to arrive in Northern California to set up nests and raise broods.

Barn swallows are protected migrations, under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These small passerines start arriving at this northern California stable around late January and into February.

Two small birds rest on the metal bar of a fence.  An out of focus house is in the background.
Male and female barn swallows rest on the metal bars of a fence. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

A recent spring rain leaves muddy puddles that the swallows eagerly visit to scoop up mud for nest building. The underside of the horse stalls provides shelter and a place to build a nest off the ground and away from predators. The barn swallows hunt and eats horseflies which benefits the horses.

Barn swallows return each year to reuse their nests when possible given how laborious they are to make. Constructing a nest involves over 1,300 trips by both the male and female barn swallows. The nests are glued onto rafters and under eaves and can last up to 10-15 years.

Both parents will brood and hunt for food for barn swallow nestlings who fledge between 15 to 27 days old.

A barn swallows peeks out from a nest.
A barn swallows peeks out from a nest. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Brewer’s Blackbirds

A blackbird with hay in its mouth rests on top of a horse trailer.
A Brewer’s blackbirds with hay for nest building. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

While red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were sighted earlier in the spring, Brewer’s blackbirds dominate the blackbird population at this horse stable. Brewer’s blackbirds are sometimes confused with grackles but are smaller in size with a shorter tail.

A blackbird sitting on the metal railing of a fence with a puffed chest.
A male Brewer’s blackbird puffs himself up before he starts calling. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Blackbirds have claimed most of the territory around the main stalls. Horse feed provides easy access to food. Nooks and crannies around the stalls provide plenty of nesting sites protected from aerial predators. Troughs provide a constant source of water for drinking and bathing.

Males blackbirds stand sentry on the top of posts around the upper arena, fluffing feathers and calling.

A light black colored bird standing on the roof of a horse stall.
A female Brewer’s blackbird keeps watch over a nest nearby. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

In a nest built on top of a rake sit blackbird nestlings, waiting for a meal. Nearby, a mother scolds nervously at nearby humans while the male blackbird lands on the nest to deliver an insect.

A black bird brings an insect to a nest with baby birds with their mouths wide open.
A male Brewer’s blackbird brings an insect to feed to nestlings. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Overlap in Nesting Sites for Blackbirds and Barn Swallows

The blackbirds and the swallows seem to divide up the rafter space. Stalls either have blackbird nests or swallow nests, never both.

Barn swallows occupy the underside of the horse stalls, building their mud nests and hunting for horse flies. Occasionally, the overlap causes the two bird species to tussle in the air above the horse stalls.

The stalls with blackbird nestlings are evident by the noisy chitter emanating from the stalls. A quieter peep peep peep can be heard from barn swallow nests.


In the stalls near the native chaparral vegetation, killdeer make their homes among the coyote brush. The spaced out shrubs in this area provide plenty of undergrowth to hide away in while the dirt of the stall is home to lots of insects attracted by the horse manure.

The name Killdeer is an onomatopoeia, meaning that the name of these birds is from the “kill-deer” sound they make. Killdeer chicks take advantage of a lull in horses lessons to eagerly enter the empty arena to snatch up insects kicked up by trotting horses.

A killdeer chick standing in the sand.
A killdeer chick hunts for insects in the sand of the horse arena. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Killdeer chicks are what is known as precocial. This means that from birth, killdeer chicks are mobile. I once read an apt description of killdeer chicks as “part cotton ball, part ostrich” in reference to their fluffy bodies and ostrich-like legs.

Nearby the mother engages in distraction display by pretending to have a broken wing in order to lure away potential predators while her chicks feed. Female killdeers will run away from their chicks, calling and fanning their wings in an effort to distract predators.

A brown and tawny bird lying in the grass fanning her wings to distract predators away from her chicks.
A female killdeer uses distraction display to lure predators away from her chicks who are nearby. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Black Phoebes and House Finches

Black Phoebes and house finches can also be seen in the upper area.

A small dark grey and white bird sites on the white ledge of a horse stall.
A black Phoebe sitting in the window of a horse stall. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Black phoebes are always found near water and, like the barn swallows, build their nests using mud. The troughs at the stable provides plenty of access of water. Late spring rains create plenty of mud that can be mixed with hay for nest building.

A brown and light colored finch stands on the back of a horse with light brown fur.
A horse provides a vantage point for this female house finch. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Turkey  vultures swoop silently overhead.

The call of a hawk from the nearby trees reminds these birds that despite the peaceful air, danger lurks nearby.

A blackbird with a red tipped wing looks for insects in the sand.
Red-winged blackbirds were an early spring visitor to the horse stable but have moved on as the weather became drier. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.


Johnson, T. W. (n.d.). Out my Backdoor: Barn swallows offer unique window into nesting | Department of natural resources division. | Department Of Natural Resources Division. https://georgiawildlife.com/out-my-backdoor-barn-swallows-offer-unique-window-nesting

Starin, D. (2016, March 8). California’s Wild Turkey Troubles. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/california-s-wild-turkey-troubles/


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.