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July 13, 2012

Secrets of Successful Nests

For many birds, nesting season does not end with the arrival of summer

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Mourning dove nests may not be the engineering feat of other birds' nests but they sturdy nonetheless. iStockphoto

  • You can say that the common nighthawk hides her eggs in plain sight. Christian Nunes

Spring marks the start of the nesting season, but species that raise more than one brood are feeding and teaching fledglings even as the next nest is getting underway, continuing well into the summer.

Some species simply spruce up the same nest for round two, while others start anew. Nests vary greatly in order to meet the precise needs of each species.

Mourning dove nests may look a bit tousled, but they are surprisingly strong. Usually they’re well hidden in the branches of an evergreen, built with a strong platform of sticks, and lined with a minimal amount of grass and weeds. Typically, the nesting pair will re-use the nest for all of their broods for the season.

Chickadee nests are built within cavities excavated in dead trees or in nest boxes. The male and female work together on the excavation, and the female lines the nest with wool, rabbit fur, moss, feathers, and other natural fibers. It may take up to two weeks to complete the excavation and nest construction.

Tree swallow nests are built in tree cavities, nest boxes, old woodpecker holes, or even mail boxes. The tree swallow gathers grasses to fill the cavity, hollows out a space within the collected mass, and lines the space with feathers that curve over the eggs. 

American crow nests are found in many parks, usually placed in the crotch of a tree or near to the trunk if on a horizontal branch. Both the male and female work together to build their large nest, using sticks, twigs, bark, and vines. They line the nest with shredded bark, moss, grass, feathers, fur, roots, and leaves.

Song sparrow nests are hidden under tufts of grass, a bush, or a brush pile, or sometimes placed low in a bush or small tree, either in woodland edges or fields or in suburban settings. The small, grass cup nest is made with weed stems and grass and lined with hair. 

Common nighthawk nests are not really nests at all! Nighthawks lay their eggs directly on gravelly ground with sparse vegetation around them or on a graveled rooftop. Mottled markings on the eggs cause them to blend in with the ground, and the female guards the eggs from predators and excessive heat from the sun.

Some nests can be observed without drawing the attention of predators or disturbing vegetation that is needed to conceal them, but some nests cannot. Always place the safety of the birds and their eggs and nestlings first. The safest time to examine nests is after the young have fledged.

Don’t let the summer go by without taking time to notice your wild neighbors. Enjoy the free entertainment, and share the fun with someone else!

Resources

  • Harrison, Hal H. Peterson Field Guides: A Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.
  • Heinrich, Bernd. Summer World: a season of bounty. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.
  • NestWatch
  • Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History
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