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Science & NatureWhat is That?What is that ... Nest?

What is that … Nest?

Waddells

Birds build nests for many of the same reasons humans build houses.  At the cottage, we shelter inside a wooden clapboard building with asphalt shingles on the roof.  Birds build their shelters of branches, twigs, feathers, and natural ‘fluff’, primarily to hold and protect their eggs and newly-hatched chicks.  A bird’s nest may be as simple as a depression on the ground, a hole in a tree, or as elaborate as a finely woven cup of vegetation and mud, or a massive treetop structure of large tree branches.

At the cottage we sometimes see the giant nests of bald eagles and osprey.  More commonly, however, we see woodpecker holes in trees, or the cups of the smaller birds in trees or on the ground.

Every year, we see eastern phoebes build their rather solid nests under the cottage eaves and deck.  They always build where there is a base for support, an upright piece to support one side, and something to act as a roof.  The eastern phoebe constructs its nest of mud, moss, leaves, and grasses.  From the look of the nests we see, we believe they also use old cobweb material.  One of our favourite pastimes is watching the phoebes fly to and fro to build their nest under the deck, and soon to feed their young.

In the same family as the eastern phoebe, the eastern kingbird uses similar materials to build its nest, but chooses a more open setting in a low bush or tree.  While the kingbird’s nest may be 18 centimeters wide and 15 centimeters deep, it lines the inner structure with so many fine rootlets, and so much cattail fluff and animal hair, the inner area may be only 5 to 8 centimeters across.  Once the chicks grow a little, it becomes quite a crowded home.  The nest in the photo below was built in scrub trees near the edge of the marsh.

The red-eyed vireo builds a small nest in the mid-story of an open forest, such as the one we were surprised to see while walking one September day.  Long after the chicks had fledged, we felt comfortable approaching the nest to examine it closely.  We could see that the home builder had used small twigs, lots of pine needles, and most prettily, narrow strips of white birch bark.  The nest was quite eye-catching.  We have attached a photo of an adult vireo to the nest photo below, but this was not be the individual bird who built this nest; it is just an example.

A rare, one-time sighting of a red-breasted grosbeak and her nest, surprised us one June day.  A thin-looking nest, it did not appear substantial enough to perform its job of holding eggs and hatchlings.  It appeared to be built of coarse twigs.  We were delighted to see the female grosbeak at the nest.

Not all nests are built in the open air.  Woodpeckers typically build their nests in naturally occurring tree cavities, or cavities they have excavated in a dead tree or dead portion of a living tree.  After finding and enhancing the cavity, woodpecker parents create a soft, comfortable space for their young by leaving wood chips at the base of the cavity.  Fortunately, one summer, this hairy woodpecker built a home for its eggs and young in a tree at the forest’s edge, close to the road.  We were able to watch the excavation of the hole as well as the feeding and growth of the chicks for several weeks.

It is a special treat to see birds and their nests, and to observe the intricate weavings left by a bird’s labours.  It is difficult to imagine accomplishing what they do, using their beaks.  But nature has equipped birds with instinctual knowhow to provide their offspring with all the comforts of home.  Perhaps we will see more examples in 2024.

For this article, we fact-checked in Jeffrey C. Domm’s Ontario Birds, as well as on our favourite birding site – www.allaboutbirds.org.

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