The Architecture of the Birds

A view of my backyard trees on a cold, but sunny winter day.
A view of my backyard trees on a cold, but sunny winter day. | Source

Leafless Trees Against Blue Winter Sky

Cold, but pretty blue winter sky.
Cold, but pretty blue winter sky. | Source

Braving the Cold Weather

The sun was shining with such a promise of warmth that I was compelled to brave the frigid temperatures. I donned a number of layers of clothing, and with camera in hand ventured out into the winter day. I had to shield my eyes from the brightness of the low-hanging sun, but remembered to thank the powers that be for its presence on this cold day.

The tall trees were talking loudly with the gusty wind as it swirled around them. They popped and groaned, obviously angry about the persistent wind forcing their stiffly frozen fibers to move. They had earned their rest, after all. Spring, summer and autumn are stressful times for the trees. Holding the weight of all the leaves, sending out longer roots to maintain their stature, searching for water in dry times and struggling against the instability of the sodden ground in soaking rains, all require enormous strength and agility. Yes, they had definitely earned their rest. I understood their protests.

Squirrel's Nest

Twigs and dry leaves make up a squirrel's autumn nest.
Twigs and dry leaves make up a squirrel's autumn nest. | Source
Grey Squirrel resting on a tree branch.
Grey Squirrel resting on a tree branch. | Source
Former Pileated Woodpecker Nest Cavity converted into squirrels' winter home.
Former Pileated Woodpecker Nest Cavity converted into squirrels' winter home. | Source

Squirrel Platform Repurposed

Glancing upward, I noticed a rather large nest balanced on a tree branch, and I could see that it was a mixture of good-sized twigs and dry leaves gleaned from the millions that had fallen to earth during the autumn. A flicker of memory played across my brain, and a humorous image made me smile; an image of the bushy-tailed rodents that love these woods as much as I do. I remembered the squirrels working in fast motion, comically imitating a mechanical ‘pay loader’ as they secured large batches of dry leaves and twigs in their mouths; then scampering up tree trunks and along branches until they reached their autumn nesting platforms, quickly depositing their loads of leaves, nudging them into place, and then rushing back down the tree for more.

But as winter approaches, they head ‘indoors’ for the security and warmth of a tree cavity, abandoning their lofty nesting platform. There they can huddle together and sleep away the coldest days, emerging only for a quick snack under the bird feeders when hunger or above-freezing temperatures tap them on the shoulder.

Black-capped Chickadees in weigela bush waiting their turn at the bird feeders.
Black-capped Chickadees in weigela bush waiting their turn at the bird feeders. | Source

Have You Ever Watched a Bird Make a Nest?

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Life-Savers for Birds

Still thinking about the antics of nature’s comedians, I realized something was perched on the edge of that former squirrel abode. It was a small bird! It propelled itself gracefully downward toward the bird feeders, landing lightly on the ground beneath. A glimmer became a revelation as I realized that this little chickadee had probably been using the old nest as a place to shelter against the cold winter nights. How logical of these little feathered creatures!

Chickadees, as well as many other birds, often use nest boxes, dense evergreens, and tree cavities as they literally shiver their way through the frigid nighttime hours. It’s their way of keeping warm and surviving until they can forage all day long. Fuel they consume during the day gives them the energy to quiver, shiver and shudder until dawn. Many times on the warmest days of summer I have wished I were a bird, able to escape the suffocating heat and feel the cool breezes on high. However, with benefits there are always drawbacks. Such it is in the wintertime, when I am most grateful not to be a bird after all!

To think that old nests continue to serve such a useful purpose beyond the warmer months as life-saving shelters for birds like the chickadees! A deep appreciation of those old ‘abandoned’ nests settles over me, as I recognize yet another piece of Mother Nature’s ultimate recycling plan.

Variety of Bird Nests

Twig nest in crotch of tree.
Twig nest in crotch of tree. | Source
Deep nest wedged between two large tree trunks.
Deep nest wedged between two large tree trunks. | Source
Another kind of nest in the top of some slender branches.
Another kind of nest in the top of some slender branches. | Source

Nests in My Backyard

The cold wind pulled me out of my reverie, and I managed to capture images of a number of nests in the trees that surround our house.

As my fingers began to feel the numbing chill, I reluctantly returned to the warmth of my own ‘nest’; again thankful not to be an overwintering bird!

To identify a certain nest as belonging to a particular bird can be very difficult, without actually seeing the owners. But there are those that are distinctive either with the materials used, their shape, or their location.

There are as many differing bird buildings as there are bird species, so I offer but a sampling of the wide variety designed by our feathered wonders.

By the way, did you know that you can offer nesting materials in the spring? Many birds will look for pieces of cotton yarn, bits of wool, mats of moss, piles of small twigs, and short lengths of raveled rope, among other materials. You can add these to a platform, suet cage or nesting ball, which can be located under a porch or overhang on your house.

Nesting Materials To Offer Wild Birds

Clean Animal Fur
 
 
Lengths of Cotton Yarn 4" to 6" long
 
 
Frayed Rope 6" Long
 
 
Laundered Cotton Mop Head
 
 
Feathers
 
 
Twigs
 
 
Straw
 
 
Moss
 
 
Dry Leaves
 
 

American Goldfinches

American Goldfinches, male and female; mourning doves in foreground.
American Goldfinches, male and female; mourning doves in foreground. | Source
American Goldfinch nest placed in sheltering shrubbery.
American Goldfinch nest placed in sheltering shrubbery. | Source

Some Elite Nest Builders

Frank Lloyd Wright had nothing on the elite nest builders of the bird world! Those little bits of sunshine called American Goldfinches are so technically proficient that their shrub-oriented nests could actually hold water. The secret is in the sheer number of tightly woven plant fibers used, thus making for a densely watertight design. Location then is paramount in order to keep eggs or hatchlings from drowning during heavy rains. Goldfinches are one of the last birds to begin their families because they time hatching to the production of late summer seed heads. They are one of the only birds I know that feed their young seeds exclusively.

Male Northern Oriole in all his glory!
Male Northern Oriole in all his glory! | Source

Oriole Building Nest from JudyJuneBug3

Baltimore (Northern) Oriole Nest

Another most distinctive nest builder of the Americas is the oriole. Baltimore orioles are adept at making a flexible but strong home for their future brood. When I was growing up, every late spring a pair of orioles built their nest on the outermost branch of an elm tree directly across the dirt road from our house. I still feel the cool concrete of our front step as I sat and watched that structure emerge.

Construction began from the outside inward with lengths of flexible twigs, rootlets and tough blades of grass to form a woven base. Materials for nests were abundant in the wild flower field/cow pasture beyond the elm tree. There was no shortage of fire flies and June bugs, grasshoppers and butterflies either. The area was rife with treasures for curious kids and hungry nest-building birds alike!

Through the outer shell the orioles artfully interlaced string, bark and plant materials, allowing the woven pouch to expand as the babies grew. Plant down and fluff gleaned from the previous year’s thistles became the lining for their natural cradle. I remember it took almost two weeks to complete the building process; if it rained, it took even longer.

I always wondered how those birds knew the strength of their creation. Why were they so sure of the ultimate result? Had they done this in practice? Did they inherit the ability and sensibilities necessary? Could it be that during the process, they were actually testing each stage for strength and adaptability to blowing winds and soaking rains?

Barn Owl Nest

Barn Owls use a non-nest approach!
Barn Owls use a non-nest approach! | Source

Minimalist Not-So-Elite Nest Builder

Perhaps the antithesis of the orioles’ building prowess could be described as the minimalist approach of the Barn Owl. Just a bare wooden floor is all that usually cradles their eggs. As the hatchlings are fed by the parents, leftovers from rodents and other goodies gradually build up underfoot. But the owlets don’t seem to mind the mess! Man-made barn owl nest boxes might include wood shavings as a cushioning for the eggs, and later as a filter for the inevitable untidiness.

Different Kinds of Robin's Nests

Mud and grass structure of an American Robin.
Mud and grass structure of an American Robin. | Source
American Robin nest looks precarious, but it's still there from last season!
American Robin nest looks precarious, but it's still there from last season! | Source

American Robins Are Opportunistic Nest Builders

American Robins, being opportunistic, are not particular as to nest location. Last spring I came upon a cozy and secure mud-and-grass creation carefully placed in the shelter of a blue spruce tree. In another part of the yard, I watched a mother robin shield her brood through drenching rains and frigid early spring snowstorms with nothing over her head but the sky and the unrelenting weather. She had built her rather haphazard twig shell in the fork of a tree. Some frightfully powerful windstorms came through our area, and mother robin remained with her nest as the tree swayed aggressively for two days and nights. She may not have been a master builder, but her fabrication served its purpose well. It’s obvious, too, that her sense of responsibility to her little ones was very strong.

More Varieties of Bird Homes

Northern Cardinals choose tangled vines or thorny bushes as their ultimate nesting sites. Very few predators, if any, are willing or even able to maneuver through sharp rose bushes or dense grape vines to raid their nests of dead leaves lined with paper.

The shell of the Tree Swallow is perfected as the female uses her body to shape it. She then lines it with other birds’ feathers, tirelessly gathered by her mate.

Mixed grasses and tiny roots combined by the industrious House Finch make for a comfy home, especially since it is lined with thread or wool found in the environment. Recycling is not lost on the birds!

Tiny hummingbirds make a minuscule cup by using fine grass, and then cover the outside with moss and lichens as camouflage. Baby hummers nestle into a soft lining of spider silk gathered by both the mama and papa.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Northern Cardinal Nest in vine.Feather-lined nest of a Tree Swallow.Male House Finch will be making a nest around here this spring.
Northern Cardinal Nest in vine.
Northern Cardinal Nest in vine. | Source
Feather-lined nest of a Tree Swallow.
Feather-lined nest of a Tree Swallow. | Source
Male House Finch will be making a nest around here this spring.
Male House Finch will be making a nest around here this spring. | Source
Source

Chickadee Gathering Nesting Material from Grandma Pearl

Chickadee Gathering Nest Material


One of my favorite birds is the friendly Black-Capped Chickadee. They are first to explore new bird feeders or bird baths, and will readily accept a man-made nest box as their home. In my abbreviated video, I managed to record a chickadee separating a tuft of animal fur to be used as the finishing touch for her nest. A depleted battery sadly cut the video short, but you get the idea!

Part of Mother Nature's Plan

It seems that no matter how well they are constructed, no matter what the materials or the location, nests are valuable pieces of Mother Nature’s plan. It’s an elegant and thrifty plan where nothing is wasted. After all, she was recycling long before it became a buzz word! The next time you are out and about among leafless trees, look up and marvel at the variety and volume of clever avian architecture.

Blue Jay absorbing sunshine on a sub-zero morning.  Image taken through a storm window screen!
Blue Jay absorbing sunshine on a sub-zero morning. Image taken through a storm window screen! | Source
Grandma Pearl: a/k/a/ Connie Smith
Grandma Pearl: a/k/a/ Connie Smith

'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds Survive and Thrive'

Read more by visiting grandmapearl.hubpages.com; and

Join me at GrandmaPearlsBackporch to discover more about wildlife in general, and birds in particular.

More by this Author


Please Tell Me About Nesting Birds You Have Encountered! 22 comments

electronician profile image

electronician 2 years ago from Birmingham, England

Lovely article, I really enjoyed the pictures. Its so impressive how well constructed some of these nests are!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

Hello my friend!

Whenever I want to learn something about birds, I always know where to go. We were out on a walk yesterday in our early spring weather and saw three eagle nests....pretty spectacular! Wonderful information as always. Have a great week ahead!


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 2 years ago from Central Florida

Pearl, bird nests amaze me. How do they stay in place? How do they know which materials to use?

Yesterday, I was standing on my front porch and something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. At first I thought it was a lizard. It was very tiny and was skittering in the sparse winter grass. It wasn't a lizard, but a bird! It was so tiny! It hopped about in the yard, apparently feeding. By the time I came back out with my camera it was gone. I'll have to keep my eyes out and see if it comes around again.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

Hi Pearl, beautiful hub, and yes we have birds nesting in our trees out the back of our house. And squirrels too! I watch them running up and down the branches collecting all the twigs and bits of leaves, its great fun just seeing them with their tails twitching! lol! but our birds are amazing, I am so lucky to have the Red Kites there, in fact they have moved house and come to the nearest tree! They must trust us now! I have seen them going back and forth and their nest is looking really good, so I hope to hear the patter of tiny feet in a couple of months! lol! voted up and shared! nell


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

hello electronician, I'm pleased you liked the pictures in this hub, and the sampling of birds' nests. The variety and creative use of materials has always been a source of awe for me. The first bird's nest I ever saw was that of an American robin. In fact, I had found some pieces of a beautiful blue egg on the ground underneath that nest, and I asked my grandfather about its owner. That was my first nest encounter, and I've loved looking for them ever since.

Thanks for stopping by for a visit ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Wow, Billy, I am jealous. Several hawks and raven or crow's nests I have to my credit, but nothing as awesome as an eagle's nest. I'm also envious of your early spring weather. How about sharing? Right now it is 10 degrees, and is expected to reach into the single digits below zero before morning! It's all we can do to keep up with the wood stove this harsh month of January ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

bravewarrior, I hope your tiny bird makes another appearance when you have your camera handy someday soon! I'd be interested to see it. Did your Christmas visitor bird stick around?

Your questions about bird nests are the same as mine. Did they learn what materials to use by trial and error, or out of necessity? You always understand where I'm coming from!

Send some heat up my way, would ya? It's 10 degrees right now, and falling rapidly ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Hi Nell, I always enjoy reading your interesting comments. You are indeed lucky to have Red Kites nearby, and now even nearer still. You are exactly right, they trust you enough to raise their little ones very close to you. Didn't you mention before that you toss food scraps to them now and then? They probably consider you a handy food source! LOL! Here's hoping you will soon be a baby bird nanny!

Thanks for the votes and share, my friend ;) Pearl


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

Connie, I enjoyed your description and photos, too. I particularly appreciate the suggestions for providing nest materials. It's so cold here that my birds and squirrels are going through so much seed. The poor dears are worth extra trips to the bird food store. It's good to know other ways to help them out, too.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

Another wonderful gem from you Pearl my dear friend. You are indeed a great teacher and here's to so many more hubs for us both to share on here.

Eddy.


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 2 years ago from Central Florida

Pearl, I haven't seen my visitor since a few days after Christmas. I guess she did what she came here to do and went on with her journey.

I saw several birds this morning perched high up in an oak tree across the street. They were small, had white (or maybe yellow) bellies and brownish gray feathers and heads. They were up so high it was really hard to see their details. What I thought comical is, when they chirped they'd bounce up and down with each note. Do you have any idea what they may be?


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

FlourishAnyway, I know what you mean about the birds eating more seeds than normal. Mine are definitely gobbling down everything I offer. Some of the many birds that fly in have to wait their turn in the branches above the feeders. Otherwise very complacent and patient little ones understandably don't want to wait too long. They actually shove each other off the perches at times! It's all very much worth it, though, as you say.

Thank you for your wonderfully supportive comments. And I'm pleased to know that you liked my nest materials suggestions. It's fun to watch the birds, usually the chickadees, plucking away at an old, freshly-laundered cotton dust mop head. At times it can be quite comical to see their 'never give up' attitude!

I'm very glad to see you, as always my friend ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Thank you so much, Eddy, for your kind words. I cannot tell you how much your friendship means to me! Thank you dear friend from gorgeous Wales, for always being there for me ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

bravewarrior, this is intriguing information! I will have to do some research to see what birds these might be. You certainly have some very interesting feathered denizens down your way. Hey, I love a good challenge--so I'll be in touch, my friend ;) Pearl


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 2 years ago from Central Florida

I know you will. You're my bird identifying guru! :-)


WiccanSage profile image

WiccanSage 2 years ago

This was awesome! I love bird nests, lol. They fascinate me. Living in the subtropics we sure get our share here of exotic birds, I like to grab the binoculars and walk around the parks and nature preserves. Beautiful images! Nice work!


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

WiccanSage, I am envious! You must have seen so many awesome birds during your walks! Don't get me wrong, I love my bird gang. But it would be awesome to meet exotic birds--maybe someday I'll get to tour a subtropic preserve.

Thanks so much for your encouraging comments ;) Pearl


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

bravewarrior, I have a sneaking suspicion that your bird might be an Eastern Phoebe, which is a tiny flycatcher that is noted for wagging its tail very often. It is small, has a yellow to buff belly, grey wings, back and head, and snaps bugs on the wing. If you hear 'fee-bee' when you catch sight of these birds again, that's confirmation!

They appear here in the late spring to early summer, but I don't think they are native to Florida. It's possible they are looking for an abundance of insects wherever they can find them! Hope that helps ;) Pearl


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 2 years ago from sunny Florida

You are so right Connie. Our little feathered friends are consummate recyclers...they know how to do it right.

Loved this walk with you and a look into the birdies world

and Yes I have watched birds make nests...it is an amazing sight to see them choose and place and do it all over again.

Great hub Shared and Pinned

Angels are on the way to you today ps


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

pstraubie, I'm very pleased you enjoyed the walk with me today! We share an interest in the wild things of our Earth, especially the birds. For me, I think it's because they are so small compared to other animals. I have to admire their adaptability to a range of weather conditions, as well as habitat and environmental issues. And when it comes to raising families, they really shine, don't they?!

Most of all I love their colorful energy, and their happy sounds.

You are such a supportive blessing, my friend ;) Pearl


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

Great work, Connie. All the birds know just what to do, even the poorly constructed nests of the MODOs. They just happen to be in the right place!


grandmapearl profile image

grandmapearl 2 years ago from Southern Tier New York State Author

Thanks Deb! It's amazing how sturdy nests are, even though they look pretty shabby to us. The birds do know what they're doing for sure. I learned that a long time ago when I watched the orioles and their nest-building expertise ;) Connie

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