Nests in the Yard

A quick survey of our immediate neighborhood tallied 51 species breeding here. Did I see 51 nests? Oh my, no. Did I see most of them? Not in my wildest dreams. So how do I know they nested? Four clues:

First, we saw courting behavior: male Northern Cardinals offering bill-to-bill gifts of sunflower seeds to flirting mates; Eastern Bluebird pairs ducking in and out of nest boxes, comparing the merits of one location over another; a male Wood Duck swimming nervously around a female, awaiting her decision; and Red-shouldered Hawks copulating.

PictureSometimes we saw bird pairs, not courting, but their breeding-season togetherness pointing to their family ways: Eastern Towhees, he in black and rust, she in brown and rust; Brown Thrashers, he and she nearly indistinguishable but together; Indigo Buntings, he in brilliant blue, she in plain-Jane brown. The extended family of seven American Crows, the young from last year and the previous year helping Mom and Dad with this year’s brood, pointed to another nesting species.

PictureSecond, we saw birds carrying nest materials—sticks, grasses, last year’s leaves, bits of string, gobs of mud. Baltimore Orioles nearly tipped over backward yanking shreds from the wisteria vine. Carolina Wrens scooped up bills full of shredded leaf mulch, filling their bills so full they surely couldn’t see to fly. Carolina Chickadees tugged tufts of moss from the ground where it grows on the north side of the shed. House Wrens executed contortions to stuff eight-inch twigs into one-and-a-half-inch holes in a gourd.

Third, we observed territorial behavior. Northern Mockingbirds chased and fussed. Great-crested Flycatchers called from a chosen tree cavity. Red-winged Blackbirds dive-bombed the Red-shouldered Hawk as she hunted too close to their territory. The Summer Tanager sang from treetops around his territory’s perimeter, drawing an audio map. 

PictureBirds singing during breeding season are either defending territory or advertising for mates. But sometimes songs are more easily heard than secretive birds are to see, like Northern Parula, Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Wood-pewee, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Wood Thrush, the songster with the most beautiful avian aria. Lately, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, awaiting caterpillar hatches before they begin nesting, registered their territorial boundaries with their resonating “cloak-cloak-cloak.

Fourth, we watched breeding pairs feed their young. Tree Swallows fed young in the nest and fed fledglings on the wing (a spectacle to watch); woodpeckers—Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers—brought their youngsters to suet feeders; a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches showed three babies how to snap up sunflower-seed snacks; Chipping Sparrows taught their family birdbath-splashing techniques.


For most birds, nesting season peaks in early summer. 

Incredibly, bird nests look as different as the birds that build them. In fact, each species’ nest displays characteristics so distinctive that field guides readily detail location, materials, size, and construction.

Most of us likely first “saw” bird nests in children’s books. Those nests, invariably made of small twigs, sat straddle a branch about midway out from the trunk, and hosted happy bird families.

In reality, few nests straddle a branch. Even fewer sit midway out. And almost none are made entirely of small twigs.

PictureFor instance, Baltimore Orioles build miraculously woven six-inch long pouch-like nests suspended from the tip of a branch by a few long fibrous strands. White-eyed Vireos likewise build pendulous nests, suspended between two twigs near their fork, situated low, amid dense vegetation.

Brown Thrashers, Eastern Towhees, and Song Sparrows situate their nests on or near the ground, protected only by stealth and dense undergrowth

Woodpeckers carve out tree cavities in which to raise their young, but they don’t build nests inside. And since woodpeckers use a cavity for only a single year, the following year may bring Wood Ducks, Great-Crested 
Flycatchers, Prothonotary Warblers, Tufted Titmice, or White-breasted Nuthatches to the ready-made cavities.Belted Kingfishers carve tunnels in mud banks, building their nests at the upper end. Swallow species stick mud-dab nests under eves of buildings or under bridges. Chimney Wwifts use their own saliva to glue nest materials inside chimneys. Killdeer lay eggs in a mere scrape on the ground.

PictureCarolina Wrens shape closed nests with a side entrance. Most flycatchers build cup-shaped nests in tree forks. Incubating Mourning Doves sit motionless, unblinking, on their flimsy collection of sticks, thus camouflaging nests.

Brown Creepers stuff their nests behind loose tree bark. American Goldfinches tuck their tiny cup nests in forks of shrubs, small trees, even sturdy weeds, cups so solidly compact that they feel wood-hard when tapped

 Owls never build nests, instead commandeering old hawk nests or natural tree cavities. Once I saw a Great-horned Owl nesting in a former Bald Eagle nest, nearly lost in the bulk. Osprey will accept man-made platforms over or near good fishing waters.

PictureNest materials differ, too.

Canada Geese pull surrounding vegetation toward themselves, forming a loose nest on the ground, and line it with their own downy feathers. Male House Wrens stuff every available cavity with twigs; then, females choose the best site which they then line with soft grasses. Carolina Wrens build cavity nests with grasses and dead leaves.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds assemble lichen-covered nests from dandelion and other plant down, fastening them with spider web to the limbs they straddle. Tree sap “glue” makes nests snug.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers employ a similar lichen-cover disguise and spider-web attachment technique.

Northern Cardinal and Brown Thrasher nests include shreds of bark from bald cypress or wild grape. Carolina Chickadees lay foundations of moss on which they construct neat cups of plant down, hair, and plant fibers.

While we glimpse something of birds’ personalities by the nests they make, we also recognize their amazing—if innate—skill in weaving secure cradles for their young. They do with bill and feet what we can’t begin to do with two hands and assorted tools—and an illustrated guide