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Why Do Some Birds Nest on The Ground? (4 Reasons for This Behavior)

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bird's nest on the ground

When most of us think of a bird’s nest, we imagine a cup nest high up in the branches of a tree. And, while it is true that most birds make their nests up in trees, it isn’t true of all birds.

Several types of birds nest on the ground. Ground nesters may build what we think of as traditional cup nests in the same ways as those that nest in trees. But some ground nesters burrow into the ground and lay their eggs in the hole. Birds may nest on the ground because there aren’t any trees.

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The 4 Reasons Why Some Birds Nest on the Ground

Below are the four main reasons that ground nesters nest on the ground, as well as a selection of bird types that build on ground level.

1. Lack of Trees

Some habitats have little or no vegetation. If there are no trees, birds in the area are forced to nest on the ground. Open prairies and some shorelines, for example, have very few or no trees. If birds are forced to build nests in trees where there are few, it would create a lot of competition for limited spaces and could prove detrimental to the species.

junco nest
Image Credit: karchicken, Pixabay

2. Poor Flying Capabilities

This reason is especially common in game birds, but if a bird is incapable of flight or has very poor flying skills, it is more likely to nest on the ground. Pheasants and turkeys are two species that will build a ground nest for this reason. They will scratch out a hole in the ground and then line the hole with nesting material like twigs and leaves.

3. Active Young

Some birds are able to swim or fly almost immediately after they hatch. In these instances, there is no defensive reason to have a nest up high. Young shorebirds can swim from a very early age, even before they can fly. As such, the water is their best defense against land-based predators, so it makes strategic sense to have the nest on the ground because it provides quicker and easier access to water. 

bird hatchlings on the nest

4. Natural Cover

Reeds and plants that provide ground cover can provide as much protection or camouflage as trees and tree branches. Some birds build their nests in these spots because they are afforded plenty of protection and camouflage from the vegetation that is on the ground.

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Birds That Make Nests on The Ground

Many species and subspecies of birds build ground nests for a variety of reasons, but they can generally be categorized as belonging to one of the following groups.


While most songbirds do build nests in trees, this isn’t true of all species. Larks and meadowlarks, for example, build ground nests. They choose a nesting site that is well hidden and that will camouflage their nest and young from predators.

songbird percing on a thin branch


Birds like ducks, geese, and swans are more at home in the water than on land. Their young can swim from a very early age, and the water provides greater protection than the elevation of trees or flying. As such, waterfowl will build their nests on the ground near water. If a predator does get close, the mother will lead her young to the water to escape.


Shorebirds, or wading birds, are those that live near water and wade in shallow water to catch prey. Examples include cranes, storks, and herons.

Shorebirds often don’t have access to many trees, which makes it impossible to be able to build nests up high or can create too much competition for tree nesting sites. For this reason, they build their nests on the ground near the water sources they rely on. 

red knot shorebird
Image Credit: Anders_Mejlvang, Pixabay

Game Birds

Game birds almost exclusively nest on the ground and primarily because they are not the ablest of flyers. Some cannot fly at all, while others are weak in the air. The protection that they are afforded by a high nest in the trees would be undone by an inability to fly out of the nest quickly and get away. Game birds that nest on the ground include pheasants and grouse.


Although we most often think of a bird nest as being high up in the trees, this isn’t always the case, and there are many species of birds that build their nests on the ground. Many game bird species build ground nests because they are not great flyers. Some shorebirds also build ground nests, typically because of a lack of trees and elevated positions that would make good nesting areas. Waders or shore birds build ground nests near a water source because they can quickly lead their young to the water if they need to escape the clutches of predators.

Featured Image Credit: Sheryl Watson, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

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.