Frequently asked questions about birds’ nests

Published: January 30, 2020

Whether it’s a burrow, a pile of vegetation in the water, or dried saliva, birds will use a broad range of materials to build nests. Often when encountering these feats of architecture at the cottage, they can elicit a multitude of questions.

Cottage Life spoke with Mark Peck, manager of the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity at the Royal Ontario Museum, to find out answers to these commonly asked questions.

Do birds reuse nests?

Yes and no. Some birds do reuse nests, while others do not. Most songbirds build a new nest every year. Other birds such as hawks will reuse a nest for several years.

If a bird uses an old nest, there can be a build-up of feather lice and ticks that could kill the nestlings. Making a new nest means predators are less likely to find it, there is less chance of insect infestations, and new materials make it stronger.

Most owl species won’t build their own nest, instead, some species will take over another bird’s nest, such as one made by a hawk or a crow.

What are the types of birds’ nests?

There are several types of nests that birds build based on their location of choice. Some prefer to nest in trees and these can include platform-, cup-, or pendulum-shaped nests.

Cliff-nesting birds like Bank Swallows will nest in cliffs or dirt banks.

Others nest on or near the ground. However, some birds prefer to lay eggs directly on the ground with no other materials.

Birds also use human-made structures to nest in. It wouldn’t be surprising to find Ospreys building their nest on top of telephone poles.

There are also birds that nest in or near water, sometimes using cattails or rotting vegetation to build a nest in the water itself. The Common Loon, for example, build their nests close to shore, but not on it.

How can I identify a bird’s nest?

The easiest way to identify a bird’s nest, Peck says, is if you know what the eggs look like. If there are no eggs, you can also identify a nest by its architecture.

For example, a hawk nest is mainly composed of sticks whereas a Grey Squirrel drey is heavily made up of leaves.

The location of the nest, where it’s positioned, the size, the outer material used to build the nest, and what the inner lining of the nest is made out of can also be used to identify what bird the nest belongs to.

Can I relocate a bird’s nest?

There are circumstances where you can, but Peck doesn’t recommend it. Relocating the nest when it’s active is dangerous because the parents could desert the young.

However, once the bird has finished with the nest, then he says you can remove it, if it’s located in a problematic area. You’ll know when the bird is finished with the nest after the young have left and you don’t see any activity.

Note: By early August most Ontario birds have finished nesting.

Do birds nest next to each other?

Some species do. Cliff-nesting species like gulls, herons, and cormorants will nest individually or in colonies, which can be quite large. Islands are often a favourite spot for colonial-nesting birds.

On the east and west coast of Canada, cliff-nesting species like puffins can number in the thousands.

What are birds’ nests made out of?

Nests can be made out of grasses, twigs, rootlets, hair, feathers, plastic, snakeskin, kelp, or seaweed, while some species like to decorate their nest with stones and shells.

Do all birds have a nest?

All birds have a site that you would call a nest but some don’t actually build one.

8 types of birds’ nests

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