Bird Nests Guide (Types & Interesting Facts)

Bird Nests Guide

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It’s easy to think of a bird’s nest as one type of structure, but when you look closely, you can see that there is incredible diversity between species.

Why Do Birds Build Nests?

Anna's hummingbird nest
Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) in a Cup Nest

It may come as a surprise to learn that different birds build different types of nests for varying reasons, although there are generally three main types which we will go on to look at in more detail later on.

Primarily, birds build nests to protect their eggs and the chicks when they hatch. They will line them with soft materials which provide cushioning to the delicate eggs but the entire structure of the nest ensures protection from the elements and keeps the eggs out of the sun.

Birds will build their nests as a way of camouflaging their eggs and young from predators. They do this in one of two ways; either by placing the nest in a concealed spot or using other materials to cover it over and make it less obvious.

Types of Bird Nests

Generally speaking, birds will build one of three types of nest; the cavity nest, the cup nest, and the platform nest. But while these are the most common, different species have a plethora of methods for building a nest.

Cavity Nest

Green-barred woodpecker (Colaptes melanochloros) in cavity nest
Green-Barred Woodpecker in Cavity Nest

As you might expect, a cavity nest is made in an open cavity in something like a tree. The nests are normally lined with materials such as moss, grass, feathers, and leaves, among other things.

You would normally find birds such as ducks, owls and bluebirds residing in a cavity nest, but these species would take over cavities that had already been made by other species. It is only really birds such as woodpeckers, barbets, and nuthatches that are actually capable of creating their own cavity nests.

Scrape Nest

Gull's scrape nest
Gull Using a Scrape Nest

A scrape nest might not even be recognised by many as a nest at first glance. You see, this is a very simple design which involves the bird scraping a small indentation in the ground into which it will lay its eggs. Depending on the species, the bird may add materials to the nest, such as stones or leaves.

Birds like vultures, quails, pheasants, falcons, and gulls will make scrape nests, and the eggs are typically camouflaged to disguise them from predatory animals.

Platform Nest

Osprey's platform nest
Osprey’s Platform Nest

The platform nest can be built in one of several locations, but you would normally see them on shallow water, on the ground or on the top of existing vegetation. These nests are usually made from large twigs and sticks with a small impression in the center for the eggs.

What’s interesting is the birds that build these nests like birds of prey such as the eagle as well as things like mourning doves and several types of raptor, will be reused year after year. The birds may return, adding new materials to maintain the nest.

Burrow Nest

Atlantic Puffins peering out of their burrow nest
Pair of Atlantic Puffins in Their Burrow Nest

There are some birds that create a burrow for their eggs as this offers excellent protection both from predators and from adverse weather. Moreover, it is much easier to maintain a consistent temperature within the nest which benefits the eggs and the chicks once they hatch.

Birds that build burrow nests include the puffin, kiwis, the great hornbill, kingfishers, and, as its name suggests, the burrowing owl.

Cup Nests

Rufous-tailed hummingbird in a cup nest
Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird’s Cup Nest

A cup nest is a round structure that, unsurprisingly, is shaped like a cup. The central depression is usually deeper than other types of nest offering great protection to the eggs inside. These are among some of the most common nests, although depending on the species they do range in size.

You will see birds such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, barn swallows, kinglets, crests, and some types of warbler building a cup nest.

Adherent Nest

Swallows nesting in a adherent nest
Swallows Nesting in a Adherent Nest

Adherent nests are attached to other structures using a sticky substance that the birds make using saliva and mud. They have a jug-like shape that isn’t too dissimilar from the shape of a cup nest.

Bird species that commonly make adherent nests include swallows, swifts, and other smaller avian species.

Mound Nest

Nesting Rose Flamingo's Using Their Mound Nest
Nesting Rose Flamingo’s On Their Mound Nest

As you can well imagine from the name, a mound nest is exactly that; a mound or cone of materials built upwards from the ground. These types of nests allow the birds to lay their eggs inside the mound which ensures they are well insulated and protected.

Birds like flamingos, brush turkeys and coots will use materials such as mud, sticks, leaves, and branches to construct a mound nest.

Pendent Nest

Oriole feeding its younglings in a pendent nest
Oriole Feeding its Younglings in a Pendent Nest

A pendant nest is usually made from materials like dried grass and rather than being open like many other types is an enclosed woven sack. The nest is suspended from a branch and there will be a small opening for the birds to enter and exit.

Pretty much all weaver bird species will build a pendent nest and the oriole, cacique, sunbird, and oropendola can also be seen to make these nests.

Ground Nest

Duck's ground nest
Ducks Nesting in Their Ground Nest

Perhaps very similar to the scrape nest, the ground nest is, as you would expect, made on the ground. Instead of constructing a typical nest, the birds will make an indentation in the ground which they then fill with materials.

There are many types of birds that will use a ground nest including ducks, penguins, pheasants, and some types of owls.

What Are Bird Nests Typically Constructed From?

What are bird's nests constructed from

Birds have access to a whole host of natural materials to build their nests and they certainly make the most of this.

Different species of birds will use different materials to construct their nests. There are even some birds that do not make a nest at all, like those that simply scrape a hole in the ground, although sometimes, these birds will fill that hole with things like leaves and pebbles.

Some birds are very intricate in their nest making. Take the robin, for example, who weaves a nest from things like grass and sticks along with mud. Whereas a bird like the golden eagle would largely build their nest out of twigs and branches.

Birds use plenty of other natural materials including plant fluff, leaves, lichen, fur, and anything they can get hold of. There are even some species that will use man-made items like plastic and paper.

Birds That Construct Impressive Nests

It’s an amazing thing in itself that birds are so easily able to construct a nest. However, there are some bird species that take natural architecture to a whole new level!

1. Weaver Birds

Weaver birds nest

Weaver birds are among some of the most fascinating birds on the planet. They are mostly found on grassy plains and savannas in sub-Sarahran Africa although there are some species in Australia and Africa.

It is typically the males that build the best while the females will then select the best one for breeding. Shockingly, as many as 100 to 150 weaver birds can live in a single nest, with this species breeding in colonies; nests are often close together with several on any one branch.

These groups of nests are woven, which is where the bird gets its name and can be made from a whole host of materials including grass, twigs, and leaf fibers.

2. Stork

Stork nests are among some of the largest nests in nature

What is it that makes the stork’s nest so special? Well these are among some of the largest nests in nature, and they’re made from a range of materials. The storks will construct them using sticks and twigs, while the lining could be made from hay, grass, and even paper. But how big are we talking? Some older stork nests have been known to be up to three meters deep and two meters across!

What’s even more interesting is that storks will build their nest very high up and while they’re impressive, in some cultures, it’s seen as bad luck to have a stork’s nest on your house. For example, in Denmark, they see it as an omen that someone will die!

The white stork is often found in Europe although they will migrate in some cases. Some storks will head as far as South Africa and parts of Asia, like India.

3. Common Tailorbird

Common tailorbirds literally ‘sew’ their nests together

The common tailorbird is typically found in tropical regions of Asia. However, they’re not timid birds and will often frequent gardens in urban areas.

What makes the common tailorbird so outstanding in the world of nest building is that they literally ‘sew’ their nests together. It’s easy to see where they get their name. These birds will put holes into leaves and then use spider silk to join them together, eventually forming an entire pouch-like nest. Once they have built their nest, they will then fill it with a variety of materials, surprisingly, it is not uncommon for them to use human-made products like paper.

4. Swallows

Swallows construct their nests from mud, leaves, and twigs.

Many people consider the swallow to be nothing more than a pest and for a lot of us, that is true. They are found on all continents, even Antarctica from time to time but in the USA, there are several different species.

While these birds can be found in gardens, parks, woodlands, and many other areas, they really spend more time in the sky than anywhere else. When it comes to building a nest, they construct it from mud, leaves, and twigs. These are adherent nests which don’t always look great on your home so many people are keen to get rid of them.

This is understandable, but you should consider the effort that goes into making one of these nests. The swallow must make around 1300 trips to gather enough materials to complete the nest, and because of this, they will usually use one nest for several years.

5. Edible-Nest Swiftlet

Nesting Edible-Nest Swiftlet

There are around 80 species of swifts and they are found all over the world. They usually prefer tropical climates, but there are plenty in colder regions.

One particular species of swift from Asia makes its nest using hardened saliva. It deposits this on rocky surfaces to fashion a nest that is unlike anything else. The swift builds up layer upon layer of saliva until the nest is complete.

But this is where it gets really weird – in parts of Asia, the nest is considered a delicacy and is a popular dish for humans. While there are many advantages to eating it, it is mostly prized for its aphrodisiac properties. 

6. Woodpeckers

Downy woodpecker cavity nest

The woodpecker is a fascinating bird for many reasons but the way it makes its nest is up there with the best. These birds perilously work away at both living and dead trees to create a cavity for nesting. They’ll usually make a new nest every year and both males and females chip in to help.

Once the nest is built, the woodpeckers will fill it with various materials. One of the most creative would be the downy woodpecker who conceals the newly built cavity with materials like lichen.

Woodpeckers are a common species that are found all over the world. The only exception to this is Australia and New Guinea. Most woodpeckers are native to South America and Southeast Asia although there are lots in North America. For the most part, you’ll find them in woodland but they’ll often frequent gardens and parks, with many making use of bird boxes.

7. Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Nesting Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Carlos E. Pérez S.L. / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Ferruginous pygmy owls are common across southern parts of the United States and down into Central America. This is a small owl species that will nest in deserts and spaces where trees and cacti are in abundance. However, they can also be found in forests close to the rivers and dry oak wooded areas.

Many of these birds will nest in an abandoned woodpecker cavity but they can also be found nesting in large holes in cacti which is a notable trait of the ferruginous pygmy owl. They would almost always opt for the saguaro cactus but since their feathers are so dense, they don’t seem to have a problem with the spikes!

However, this is an endangered species and you would be lucky to spot one. Each year, there are only a few sightings and these are diminishing.

8. Bee Hummingbird

Bee Hummingbird nest

The bee hummingbird is known to be the smallest bird in the world and can only be found in the Caribbean nation of Cuba.

Since these are such small birds, it will come as no surprise that the nests are also on the tiny side. It is the females that construct the nests which have a cup shape and are made from materials like lichen, cobwebs, and tree bark. Inside the nest, the female will place a lining of plant fibers.

You’ll normally see these nests on high tree branches and the females use them to lay a small clutch of usually no more than two eggs.

9. Hamerkop

Hamerkop nest

The hamerkop is related to birds such as the pelican but it is in a genus all of its known; literally, since this is the only living bird in the Scopus genus. Being a wading bird, it is found near bodies of water across Africa as well as Arabia and Madagascar.

But what makes the nest of the hamerkop so interesting? It’s their sheer size! Some hamerkops will use sticks as long as 150cm when building their nests so you can imagine the overall size of the structure. They’ll even use human-made items like bits of old tire!

The hamerkop constructs its nest in the fork of a tree in a cavity style with an opening to allow them in and out. During nest building is normally when mating takes place.

10. Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon nest

The gyrfalcon can be found in North America and parts of Europe. It typically breeds along Arctic ocean coasts and is known to be the largest species of falcon. They’re often found on offshore islands, rocky cliffs, and sometimes in mountainous areas up to 5000 feet above sea level.

What’s interesting about the gyrfalcon’s nesting habits is that it doesn’t use its own nest but often invades those of other birds including eagles. These birds do make scraper nests and there has been one discovered in Greenland that is thought to have been continually used by gyrfalcons for as many as 2500 years!

Not only has this given scientists a glimpse into how these birds continually reuse nests, but it has also given them evidence of how their behaviors and habits have developed over the years.

11. Bald Eagle

Bald eagle nest

The bald eagle is known for being a large species of bird but it also holds the record for making the biggest nest in history! In the 1960s, one bald eagle’s nest was discovered that measured a whopping 10 feet across and 20 feet deep! These nests also weigh an incredible amount and this record-breaking example was more than 4400 lbs!

Bald eagles make their nests using twigs and sticks which they weave together in a random manner. To line the nest, both male and female bald eagles will bring leaves, moss, grass, and other soft materials.

You will find bald eagles across North America in pretty much all areas. However, during the winter, they are more common in southern states when they migrate.  Their preferred habitat is coastal or mountainous regions.

12. Australian Brush Turkey

Australian brush-turkey nest

The Australian brush turkey, while not actually a turkey at all, can only be found in Australia, Indonesia, Polynesia, and New Guinea. These dino-looking birds are megapodes and have a very distinct appearance.

These birds are known for their enormous mound nests which they build from the ground up and in some cases, can be as wide as 13ft and as tall as 4ft. All of that hard work is done by a male who will then woo several females into visiting the nest and mating with him.

They can be considered a bit of a pest Down Under since they can often be found foraging around yards looking for things like leaves, dirt, and twigs to build their mound nests! But let’s not get too angry with them; consider that their nests are the size of a small car and designed to incubate their eggs and it’s no wonder that the birds have to search far and wide for materials.

13. Piping Plover

Piping Plover nest

Piping plovers are usually found on sandy beaches and tidal flats although they are largely endangered now and sightings are becoming fewer and fewer. This is widely accepted to be because of human activity in their natural habitats along Atlantic coastlines. These birds can also be found around the Great Lakes.

The piping plover is very particular about where it builds its nest, choosing the narrow strip of land between the high tide line and the coastal dunes. They will use their feet to create indentations in the sand, creating a scrape nest. What’s interesting is that these nests only take a day to create, a mating pair may build several before settling on a final location.

The nests are not large at just a few inches long and half an inch deep. The piping plover normally lines its nest with pebbles and small stones as well as pieces of seashell.

14. European Bee-Eater

European Bee-Eater nest

As their name suggests, these birds eat bees but what they’re really well known for is their unique nests. The European bee-eater can be found across most of Europe but also as far down as Africa. They typically prefer habitats around freshwater as well as grasslands and savannahs.

What’s so amazing about the nest of the European bee-eater is that it isn’t a traditional type of nest but rather a hole that is bored out of a cliff face. Unlike some types of birds, they don’t just take cavities made by other species, but a breeding pair will work tirelessly to carve out their hole. It can take as many as 20 days for the pair to complete the nest ready for laying their eggs.

15. Bowerbirds

Bowerbirds nest

The most fascinating thing about the bowerbird is not the nest, but the structures that are built by the males as part of a mating ritual to impress a female. The males painstakingly create a nest which they then decorate with brightly colored items. They may use natural materials but are also quite happy to use man-made things as well. Whatever will get the girl!

Once the males have finished preparing their structure, the females will come along to inspect it. They’ll choose the most impressive one and mate with its builder.

There are 27 different species of bowerbird but they all behave in a very similar manner. However, you’ll only really be lucky enough to see them if you live in Australia and New Guinea where they live in rainforests and shrublands.

Birds That Rely on Other Birds to Construct Their Nests

Not all birds will build their own nests and instead rely on other species to do the hard work for them. While some birds will simply use something like an abandoned cavity, others will trick other birds into raising their young.

This is known as brood parasitism and occurs when a bird or other animal mimics brood behaviors of the host, causing them to raise the young in the belief that they are their own. In the case of birds, this will usually be laying eggs in a nest where similar-looking ones are already present. The birds can be safe in the knowledge that their young will be well looked after without them having to deal with the responsibilities of parenthood.

1. Common Cuckoo

Marsh Warbler Raising Common Cuckoos
Marsh Warbler Raising a Common Cuckoo

The common cuckoo, which is widespread across Europe, enters into a nest and has adapted to lay its eggs as quickly as possible, allowing it to then abandon them without being detected. They will usually go for broods with similar eggs in terms of appearance as well as targeting birds whose eyesight might not be as good as their own.

But what’s most interesting is how a breeding pair will work together. Since the female needs to access the nest without being noticed, the male will lure the host away while she goes in to lay eggs. Amazingly, it usually takes no more than ten seconds! However, problems arise when the newborn cuckoos hatch and actually push the host’s eggs out, taking the parent all for themselves!

2. Cowbirds

Wood Thrush and Cowbird nestling
Wood Thrush and Cowbird Nestling / Kelly Colgan Azar / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

The female cowbird begins locating a suitable host nest by looking for females who are laying at the same time as her. She will wait until the host leaves her nest and then swoops in and lays eggs of her own. In many cases, the cowbird will also remove some of the host’s eggs.

Since the cowbird hatchlings are usually born before the host species, the parents will focus their attention on them, which often means that their own young are affected. Moreover, the cowbird babies grow rather quickly, so they take much of the food from the host’s chicks.

3. Koel

Koel

Asian koel birds can be found across the continent in places like Singapore, China, and India. Their most common target is the house crow, who will put up a good fight to save its nest and eggs from being overtaken by the koel.

The reason that this unlikely parasitic relationship began is because of the cross-over between the breeding periods of these two species. What’s more, the eggs of the koel are very similar in appearance to those of the house crow. However, the koel has to be careful when she lays her eggs in the crow’s nest as doing it before the host could cause rejection.

4. Greater Honeyguides

Greater Honeyguide
Dominic Sherony / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Honeyguides live in wooded areas and open woodland in sub-Saharan Africa. They are a fascinating bird in that they will lead humans to sources of honey to obtain it. While this behavior is incredible, these birds are also known for their brood parasitism. They will normally target the nests of birds like bee-eaters and cavity-nesting species.

When the honeyguide chicks hatch, they will usually resort to aggression and violence to get rid of any competition and win the fight for survival. 

How Do Birds Learn How to Build their Nests

Black-throated blue warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)
Black-Throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)

Watching birds build nests, it seems rather amazing that they appear to automatically know what they’re doing. But what’s even more fascinating is that not a single bird out there would have seen its parents building a nest, so how do they know where to start?

Moreover, during the breeding season, even the youngest and most inexperienced females will construct a nest that is exactly the same design that the rest of her species has been crafting for millennia!

It all comes down to instinct. The reason that birds build their nests in a specific way is to ensure survival and that survival instinct is hard-wired.

But there are other suggestions that state birds will learn nest-building habits from observing similar species and follow the basics. Some others believe that birds will develop their nest-building abilities over time, using trial and error to create the perfect place to raise their young.

How Do Birds Keep Their Nests Clean?

Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) removing fecal sac from it's nest
Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) Removing Fecal Sac from Nest

It’ll come as no surprise that birds’ nests could get pretty unkempt if they aren’t well maintained but just as interesting as the way that they learn to build them, birds also know just how to keep their nests spic and span.

With babies in the nest, there’s bound to be a lot of waste but birds deal with this in a rather unique way. The hatchlings produce something called fecal sacs which are essentially tiny sacs containing poop. When they excrete these, the parents either dispose of them outside of the nest or eat them! Yes, it’s pretty disgusting but it’s how these feathered friends keep everything neat, tidy, and hygienic within the nest.

The parent birds will also dispose of eggshells by eating them once their young are born and what’s surprising is that both of these things are quite nutritious. Waste not, want not, as they say!

Which Birds Do Not Build Nests?

Since the world of bird’s nests is so versatile, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that some avian species don’t bother with nests at all.

1. Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguins

The beautiful emperor penguin is one bird that doesn’t build a nest. This is largely because of the environment in which these birds live. The ground is far too cold to even attempt to incubate eggs and even if it weren’t Antarctica is a pretty barren place where nothing much grows. For this reason, finding nesting materials is as good as impossible.

Instead, these birds have developed a unique way of incubating their eggs. As soon as the female lays the egg on the ground, she rolls it onto her partner’s feet, and he then keeps it warm using an abdominal pocket.

2. Nightjars

Nestng Nightjar

Nightjars are curious birds with a very unique appearances. Their feathers are colored in such a way that they could easily be mistaken for tree bark which makes these birds excellent at camouflage. What’s more, there’s no need to lay a nest when the two eggs that females lay each breeding season could also just as easily pass a bark.

So instead of wasting energy constructing anything, the nightjar lays her eggs straight onto the ground and relies on camouflage to keep them protected.

3. Common Potoo

Common Potoo nesting

Another bird that excels at camouflage is the common potoo which spends its days resting on trees and staying incredibly still in order to remain concealed. When it comes to breeding season, the common potoo still makes use of tree branches, simply laying its eggs directly at the top of a branch and then incubating them while making the most of its camo colors.

4. Chuck-Will’s-Widow

Chuck-will’s-Widow nesting

Native to parts of the USA particularly the midwest and southern states, the Chuck will’s widow is another type of nightjar. Just like the British nightjar, the eggs of these birds are colored in such a way that they will blend in with leaf litter and bark on the ground so there’s really no need for a nest at all!

The birds will usually choose a shady spot on the ground to lay their eggs and before mating, the male will put on quite the performance with his plumage to impress his chosen female.

Do Birds Reuse their Nests?

Bald Eagles Reuse Their Nests Year After Year

Whether or not a bird reuses its nest depends on the species. For example, many types of raptors build their nest from robust branches and sticks so they tend to be naturally much longer-lasting. As a result, these birds may return to the same nest year after year. What’s even more interesting is that these birds will also add to their nest each time they return.

Other birds that reuse their nests are the white stork. In fact, there is one nest that is believed to date back to the 1500s which was used all the way up until 1930. Moreover, there are other types of birds that will reuse nests made by other birds such as cavity nesters that do not bore their own cavities.

However, there are other species that use materials that will quickly begin to deteriorate and rot after one use. This applies largely to cup nesting birds such as the robin. After they have finished using the nest, the birds will abandon it and build a new one the following breeding season.

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