Nest-watching for Fun and Science
Nest-watching can be fun!
Nest-watching can be a fun activity that the whole family can enjoy. In this lens, I will present some of the ways to get the most out of nest-watching without bothering the nesting birds. It can be fun watching baby birds hatch, grow up, and leave the nest. Plus, it's a great opportunity to teach children about nature. There are even programs where you can enter your data and help scientists out at the same time.
All photos on this lens were taken by me unless otherwise noted (i.e. Allposter photos).
First, I would like to familiarize you with the website Nestwatch.org. This is a site where you can enter all your data which will be used by scientists and other people doing research. First thing that has to be done after registering is taking the Nestwatch course. This course will go various details on how to properly watch nests and about the ethical responsibilities of nest-watchers. If you follow this course, it will increase the likelihood that the eggs you're monitoring will hatch and the chicks will fledge healthy. Your first responsibility to is the birds.
Great guide to nest and chick identification
Here is an excellent guide to nest and chick identification. I actually love this book and it has many color illustrations of a great deal of bird species.
This is a really helpful guide with a lot of illustrations of eggs and chicks. It includes less common birds, too, and not just the more popular one.
Things to keep in mind while nest-watching
Here are a few things to keep in mind while watching nests. Some are mentioned on the Nestwatch.org site, some are from my own personal experience.
- Be wary of the scent you leave around the nest. Do not leave a straight line of scent to a ground nest or tree by walking up to the nest and walking back the way you came. Instead, try to only get close enough to the nest to make a good observation and keep walking straight past, looping around far away from the nest.
- Do not bring dogs or other animals with you when you check on nests. Children are OK if they can be trusted to observe the same ethical protocols that you employ.
- Do not touch eggs, nest, or young.
- Never force a bird off the nest or cause them to leave by excessive noise, movement, etc.
- Do not disturb area around the nest.
- Do not feed birds around the nest.
- Be wary of crows and other predators nearby. They may be watching what you're doing and raid the nest later on.
- Do not post the location of any raptor, endangered, rare, or unpopular bird nests on public forums. Posting photos is generally OK on most websites as long as an exact location is not mentioned. Check with the website or forum to see if posting photos of nests is allowed before doing so.
- Laws about nests vary from country to country. In some countries, it is illegal to photograph certain nests or baby birds without a permit. You can get a hefty fine for doing so and possibly have your camera confiscated. Check the rules of the country you live in or visit before taking photos.
Some birds, such as the parents of this American avocet chick, lay eggs on the ground and when their babies hatch, they take them to areas where there is plenty of food for them to eat. It is difficult to follow the young of these species unless you are familiar with their habits and can identify individuals well. It is possible to watch them grow up.
The first defense for these chicks is their camouflage. When they spot danger, they immediately freeze and lay down behind a rock or run a short distance to grass or some brush while mom and dad distract you. Be careful where you step as the chicks are almost invisible, especially in grass or brush. Do not chase or follow chicks as they may be frightened enough to run into the mouth of a waiting predator nearby. Limit time in the area as you are probably interrupting critical feeding and sleeping time for these babies.
Most birds, fortunately, lay their eggs in nests in trees or nestboxes. Therefore, it should be easier to monitor the nest with minimal disturbance.
Types of nests and nesting
Birds nest in different ways depending on how they live. For example, birds that nest in trees or on cliffs tend to have babies that are completely helpless and rely on mom and/or dad for everything. They are usually born naked and blind. Fortunately, they hatch and grow fast, lessening their period of helplessness. In general, eggs hatched in these kinds of nests take only 14 days to hatch. The babies usually take 14-21 days to fledge, or leave the nest. Examples of these types of birds are swallows, sparrows, finches, phoebes, hummingbirds, doves, and many more. Raptors, herons, and other meat-eating birds take much longer to hatch and take longer to mature possibly due to the fact that they have to learn special co-ordination for finding and killing prey.
Birds that live almost full time on the ground tend to nest on the ground or, in very few cases, in the hollows of trees (for example, wood ducks) or on floating nests near the water. The eggs of these birds usually take a lot longer to hatch, about 28 days on average, due to the fact that their chicks hatch in a very advanced state. These kinds of baby birds are said to be "precocial" or "pre-knowing". They usually hatch fully covered with down, their eyes open, and ready to leave the nest. Most of these birds are not fed by their parents, but are shown what to eat. Some of these birds may take longer to reach maturity, as well. These birds include shorebirds, ducks, some hawks, gulls, and rails.
Canada Goose Nest
Ducks and geese line their nests with soft down, unlike shorebirds which sometimes re-arrange rocks and twigs around their eggs, but do not line their nests with soft material.
Be wary about approaching the nest of large waterfowl like geese and swans. The adults are very excitable during nesting season and can actually seriously injure people, especially small children.
Talking to your children about eggs and chicks
Observing eggs and baby birds can be a great educational opportunity for a parent and young child. Just as a "heads up, " I would like mention a few possible issues that may come up depending on a child's age and experience level with animals. Very young children might have a problem with issues regarding eggs not hatching, chicks dying, predators, or predators eating the chicks or parents. Some children may be very disturbed by witnessing these activities and may ask a lot of questions about death or be scared about predators. Other children might not be phased at all about that part, but ask a lot of questions about reproduction and where babies and eggs come from. Be prepared for any such questions that your child might ask.
More books on identifying nests and eggs
Here are more books about how to identify nests and baby birds. But, I also threw in other cute items.
For those of you on the west coast of the United States who might like some photographic help.
Smaller guide that's easy to take along and for kids to refer to. It contains info about some of the more common backyard books.
Links to sites with nest cams
Have no time to go out and monitor nests? Check out these links to nestcams around the world. Nestcams are great because they allow people to observe nesting behavior minimal disturbance to the birds. During the fall and winter, nestcams may be turned off until the next breeding season. Most of the sites have footage of previous activities. More cams will be added at another time.
- Decorah Eagles
Watch the famous Decorah Eagles in Decorah Idaho, or watch recorded footage
Watch a mother wood duck hatch her babies and watch the babies take their first jump!
- Cornell Lab Bird Cams | Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron nest at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Cornell Lab Bird Cams | Red Tailed Hawk
Red Tailed Hawk nest at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Start your own nestcam!
Here are some suggestions for starting your own nestcam or remote wildlife viewing, or for instruction on how to photograph nests and birds without disturbing the wildlife.
Another type of birdhouse with a camera that can be used by various cavity nesting birds, not just bluebirds.
Bluebird nest boxes are fairly popular in some parts of the country. They often struggle with finding cavities to nest in.