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Nests are important to almost all birds. “Almost” being the operative word because not all birds feel the need to build nests. Some prefer laying eggs directly on the ground or rocky ledges, while others simply steal1.
Today’s focus will be on the nesters. We’re so fascinated by them because the type of nests they usually build are often unique. They’ll never be of the same size, shape, color, or even quality.
It’s important to learn about these nests—especially if you’re an avid birder or ornithology student—so that you can easily identify them and appreciate their engineering ingenuity.
The easiest nest to find is the cup nest. They are common and always found on the edges of tree branches. Identifying one won’t be a problem, seeing as they look a lot like small cups or bowls. What’s more, compared to other nests, we believe the cup nest is the most comfortable.
Birds that commonly build this type of nest include crests, hummingbirds, songbirds, kinglets, a few flycatchers, and even swallows. The nests are always so firmly secured against the branches because they typically use materials that have an adhesive quality. For instance, you’ll see them using dung, mud, caterpillar silk, or saliva to stick together moss, leaves, grasses, and all the other materials used as building blocks.
By the way, the materials used to build the exterior are usually different from the ones used to build the interior. They’ll be sort of scratchy and rough to protect the nest from uninvited guests that would try to gain access when the bird’s not around. So don’t expect to find soft things like fur, cotton, or moss on the outside. It will most likely be pointy branches or tiny sticks.
Being the most common type of nest doesn’t mean that the cupped-shaped nest is the easiest to build. In this kingdom, species that prefer building scrape nests usually end up investing the least amount of time. It’s easier to construct as it doesn’t require a lot of material. All the bird does is create a shallow depression on the ground by scraping, and adds a few leaves or feathers. Some species will also add stones to stop the eggs from rolling out.
How deep the depression is will depend on two things: the size of the bird, and that of the eggs being laid. Needless to say, if the bird is relatively large or lays large eggs, it will scrape a deeper depression.
One other thing that you’ll realize once you see the eggs is how camouflaged they look. They are never brightly colored because laying eggs on the ground exposes them to predators. That’s also the reason why these birds have nestlings that are precocial—chicks that leave the nest a couple of days after hatching.
Common scrape nesters include ostriches, vultures, falcons, shorebirds, nighthawks, and a few other species.
If you come across a platform nest, look the other way and start running. It’s common knowledge that most birds that build this type of nest are birds of prey. We’re referring to hawks, eagles, and all the other species that love to hunt. Characteristically, they are large, strong, and very swift. So if they spot you lurking around that area, they won’t think twice about attacking.
There’s a reason why most people who’ve seen a platform nest are climbers—these nests are always found on top of cliffs or big trees. It’s a strategy that the birds employ to ensure no predator gets access to the nest.
Building a platform nest will take months. They are complex in nature, large, and very heavy. For example, it’s rumored that an eagle’s nest weighs up to a ton! To put that into context, that’s about the same weight as a small sub-compact car. In fact, sometimes they fall from the tree because the branches aren’t strong enough to hold them.
To be honest, we’re not surprised. Why should we be, when these birds keep fortifying those nests with branches and sticks every year, whenever they feel ready to start laying eggs? Yes, you read that right. They never abandon their nests even after the young have left. They go back and keep going back, for the rest of their lives.
If the bird is a water bird, you’ll find the nest floating on water. It won’t move though, as it will be anchored to the different plant species found at the very bottom of the water. We know it’s an unusual site to build a nest, but they have to since they don’t do so well on land. Should anything happen, they won’t be able to protect the eggs or themselves.
When the younglings are ready to leave, they’ll jump into the water and live their aquatic lives peacefully.
In addition to the usual purpose of guarding the eggs, a mound nest is designed to keep them warm in volatile weather. That’s why you’ll find these nests constructed using materials that easily decay.
Akin to the compost pile, the dead mass used to build the mound nest will eventually start to decay, thereby releasing just enough heat to incubate the eggs and keep the bird warm.
A female mound nester will never try to build its own nest because this type of construction isn’t easy to build. All that piling of organic matter requires strong feet, the one thing that they don’t have. So they’ll let their male counterparts do all the work. And they won’t start laying eggs in it until they feel the temperature inside is optimal.
To prevent that temperature from dropping, the male nester will keep on adding more and more organic matter. You’ll see them flying back and forth with leaves, tiny branches, twigs, and sticks in their beaks.
The most common species in this category are brush turkeys and flamingoes.
Common cavity nesters include the house sparrow, parrots, chickadees, and the eastern bluebird. They’ll make their own nesting cavities or search for ones provided by nature. Natural cavities are the kind you see in large cacti, snags, and decaying trees. They would even go as far as nestle gaps found in between properties, and the holes in electric poles. To make the inside cozy, they’ll add animal fur, soft grass, spider web, or plant fibers.
It’s important to take note of the fact that we have two types of cavity nesters: primary and secondary nesters. Primary nesters excavate their own cavities, while secondary nesters nest in abandoned or natural cavities. Creating a cavity is time-consuming, and the process can at times be strenuous for the bird.
The pendant nest is the type of nest that dangles from a branch. It’s usually well-woven, to imitate a sack. Oropendolas and Baltimore orioles love building these types of nests because they completely hide them from predators. And even if the bird is spotted, the way it’s suspended makes it unreachable to non-flying predators.
The sphere nest, on the other hand, resembles a dome. It’s completely enclosed, but unlike the pendant nest, it’s found closer to the ground, making it more susceptible to predators or anything that wishes to do the bird harm. To protect itself from the various harsh elements of weather, the marsh wren, meadowlarks, and American dippers often make sure that the entrance is not above the nest, but on the side.
Which nests are the most decorated in the bird kingdom?
The most decorated nest has to be the Bowerbird’s nest. Bowerbirds are a species that belongs to the Ptilonorhynchidae family. They are known to have one of the most unique courtship behaviors in the animal kingdom. Typically, the males take on the responsibility of ensuring their nests are built on time, with decorations such as leaves, sticks, grass, and several other brightly colored objects. The end goal is normally to get the attention of their female counterparts.
This depends on the species. In some families, you’ll find the male bird working hard to build a comfortable structure. The perfect example is the hamerkop bird. It will build the nest and wait for the female’s approval. If she loves it, she’ll get in and start laying eggs. But if she doesn’t, her partner will destroy it, discard everything, and then build a different one.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest nest ever made belonged to a bald eagle. The breeding pair came together and built a nest near St. Petersburg, Florida, in the United States. That nest weighed more than 4,000 pounds, was 20 feet deep, and almost 10 feet wide. It was discovered in 1963.
Birds build nests for several reasons. They’ll need a nest if they want to cushion their eggs, shelter their chicks, or even protect them from predators looking for vulnerable prey. That’s why you’ll find soft materials such as animal fur, moss, or plant fibers on the inside, and materials that easily blend in with their surrounding on the outside.
You’ll come to realize that birds are just as creative as humans when it comes to building—possibly even better than us. No species will build a structure that resembles that of a different species in the context of size, shape, or style. They’ll all be unique, seeing as their wants and needs vary. We feel like studying them should be important, as it will give us more insight into their lifestyle and reproductive habits.
Featured Image Credit: Wasilunwasil, Shutterstock
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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