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Distance Learning Young Naturalists Club

Best of Bird Nests

When admiring a freshly made bird nest, my grandfather would whistle and say, “they put us to shame.” He was impressed with the nests’ efficiency, beauty, and that they make them without hands. Another amazing thing about bird nests? Almost every species makes a unique type of nest.

Today, we challenge you to find at least one bird nest and try to identify the bird species who made it. Key clues to solve this mystery are:

  • material the nest is made out of (leaves, moss, sticks, spit, dirt?)
  • habitat type in which you found it (the woods? Near water? A field?)
  • its size 
  • height off the ground (on the ground? In bushes? High in a tree?) 

Compare your clues to the descriptions of nests at allaboutbirds.org (which has lots of other great bird information too!). 

If you are quiet and patient, you might also see:

  • What the eggs or chicks look like
  • Parent birds coming and going

That will definitely help you figure out what kind of birds made the nest!

Some of the easiest nests to identify in Southeast Ohio are made by Baltimore orioles. They weave bag-like nests out of milkweed and other plant fibers. See the nest below on the left, and the male oriole on the right:

Spring is a great time to look for birds and their nests. Many bird species are already building nests, laying eggs, or have even hatched young birds already. Great-horned owls, for example, can begin their courtship as early as November and lay eggs well before the spring equinox. 

Just watching the birds around my house this spring, I’ve seen american robins, mourning doves, european starlings, house sparrows, chipping sparrows, carolina chickadees, carolina wrens, and common grackles building nests. You can tell they are working on nests because they’ll fly down into the yard to gather straw, dried grass, moss, or twigs and then fly away. 

When your nest is a hole in a tree

According to this study, about 18% of the world’s bird species actually nest in tree cavities, or holes in trees. Locally, tree cavities are nests for wood ducks, bluebirds, chickadees, tree swallows, great-crested flycatchers, and prothonotary warblers (1 of only 2 warbler species in the world that nests in tree cavities). 

These cavities can be natural holes that form in trees when a branch breaks off or part of the tree decays. However, there is one type of bird that many other songbirds depend on for tree cavity nests–can you imagine what type of bird could make its own hole in a tree? You guessed it–woodpeckers! Many species of songbirds (338 species worldwide) depend on tree cavities left behind by woodpeckers. 

Why make birdhouses?

Humans can increase the number of potential nest sites for these cavity-nesters by putting up nest boxes. This is good for the birds because they have more places to nest, and good for people because we get to see them up close, and learn more about them. 

Rural Action and so many amazing volunteers have put up about 60 nest boxes in Athens and Hocking Counties over the last few years, and we check these regularly during the breeding season. The photos below document some of the species who have used these boxes. 

Look at these birds’ nests–how are they different or the same?

Use the examples below to figure out what species made this nest. What is the nest made of?
Carolina chickadee chicks are almost ready to fledge in this photo from June of 2019. Chickadees make nests out of moss and sometimes top it off with animal fur.
These bright blue eggs belong to the eastern bluebird, who always weaves a neat nest out of dried grass or pine needles.
Carolina wrens build their nests out of a medley of forest debris: moss, twigs, dead leaves, and dried plants. They will nest in boxes as well as cabinets or shelves in garages, in Madison’s propane tank lid, and other man-made structures.
House wrens usually fill up the entire nest box with twigs and line the nest cup with softer material. They usually raise big broods of 6-8 chicks at a time! Note their beautiful salmon-colored eggs.

Prothonotary warblers are a migratory species. The males usually return to their breeding territories in late April, a week or two before the females arrive. Males typically carry moss into four different nest boxes; when the female returns, she chooses which of the four will work best and finishes the nest by adding dried grass to the nest cup.
Prothonotary warbler eggs are white or pink with red spots and splotches.

This is a close-up shot of a tree swallow nest and the chicks have just hatched out of their bright white eggs. They begin developing feathers very soon–if you find a nest with pink featherless chicks, you know they have hatched very recently. Tree swallows build nests similar to bluebirds but line their nest cup with feathers.
These tree swallows were clearly doing math problems in their spare time as indicated by the writing on the wall. But seriously, scientists have discovered a direct correlation between the amount of feathers lining a tree swallow nest and their fledging success rate. They especially like white feathers from wood ducks, mallards, and other waterfowl. If you have chickens, you can collect the lightest feathers and toss them up in the air near tree swallow nests. If they are still building their nests, they will swoop down and collect the feathers in mid-air. 
One family of tree swallows will eat roughly 250,000 insects per summer. They prefer nesting in wetlands and have probably relied on beavers to create their preferred habitat for thousands of years.

Resources for more information and inspiration: 

Your mission today:

  1. Search for a bird nest.When you find one, use the clues above to guess what species made it!  Let us know what’s nesting near you. If you have any questions or need help figuring it out, send us questions or photos, or both!
  2. Create a bird nest of your own out of whatever materials you can find outside. Use another species as a model or be creative on your own. Explore these beautiful photos of nests for inspiration. Take a photo and upload it to the comments section so we can see what you came up with.  

Take it further:

  • Observe birds around your house or in a favorite place outside. Where do they spend most of their time? High in the trees? Around the new green tree leaves? On the ground? Can you tell what they are eating? 
  • Research the Louisiana Waterthrush, one of our largest species of warblers that, just like all of you, loves creeks. Where does it spend its winters? Where do they build their nests? What do they eat? Where else are they found in the United States during the breeding season?
  • Become a certified nest watcher by passing the test at https://nestwatch.org/ 
  • Read some of Ohio expert Dick Tuttle’s articles about his many years of building and managing bird boxes and his research on birds. 

4 replies on “Best of Bird Nests”

I flushed an eastern towhee off her nest yesterday and snapped a quick photo of the four eggs. This is the first towhee nest I’ve ever found!

Quinn, what a great photo and find! Was this attached to the underside of a bridge or something? Looks to me like an Eastern Phoebe nest–they love building nests under rock overhangs, on the sides of houses, and under bridges. They use a lot of moss and have white eggs like that. Thanks so much for sharing your find!

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