Backyard birding: How to help birds build nests

Black Capped Chickadee Collecting Moss for Her Nest Box Jeff Huth/Shutterstock

Some might think that birds only use grass and leaves to create the perfect place to raise their brood, but it turns out there’s a lot more that goes into the construction of their nests. 

There are plenty of ways we can help them create their cozy abodes , according to Jody Allair, Director, Citizen Science and Community Engagement for Birds Canada. He says there are a few elements that go into the creation of the best nest-building environment; there are some initial steps that lead up to them being able to nest on your property. Consider the “‘If you build it, they will come’ mentality,” he says. “You can put out something for birds to use but if you don’t have good habitat or landscaping that’s friendly for birds, then anything you put out won’t work.”

First step! Birdscaping
First and foremost, plant native trees and shrubs. “Plant native trees and shrubs always—they’re far superior to ornamentals,” he says. Not only will these attract the appropriate insect life that birds will eat, they also make for better nesting sites. According to Allair, numerous studies comparing sugar maple trees to non-native Norway maple show that Norway maple trees are essentially vacant of insect life. “The native species make a big difference, and they survive better—plus they’re easier to grow here.” Having a yard festooned with native plantings, is very important. Avoid temptation to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers too. “You don’t want to attract bird to a place you’ve just filled with chemicals. It’s 2021, I think that we all know now that we shouldn’t be using them for a whole host of reasons.”

Size matters—variety too Add a variety of different sizes of plants and trees, including shrubs. Allair suggests dogwood, willows, and Saskatoon berry bushes, saying that not only will they provide nesting cover, they look beautiful and have a built-in food source. Think serviceberry, or choke cherry—which happens to be his favourite. You don’t have to have Mark Cullen-level product knowledge either, he says. Just go to your local garden centre, tell them what your goal is (more birds, please) and ask for their recommendations.

Splish, splash The Birds Canada website also suggests adding a water feature (if you don’t have a lake or pond, that is) to attract more fowl. It will provide drinking water and a place to them to groom up. Make sure the water is clean by either changing it regularly, or add a filtration system. Some ornithological enthusiasts even add a heating system to birdbaths so birds can enjoy a longer season of open water.

Next step! The nest
Once you’ve created the best possible backdrop for the birds, then you can give them a helping hand with good nesting material. Did we mention it’s also a fun family activity? “It’s something I’ve done with my own daughter when she was young: watching the swallows or chickadees pick up the items to add to their nest—it’s awesome.” But there’s one major caveat: all material has to be 100 per cent natural. Do not offer dryer lint, tinsel, strips of plastic, or yarn. “It’s bad for the birds, and it’s bad for the environment,” he advises. 

What you can use is found items in nature (not from the craft store): feathers (goose, duck, swan)—especially for tree swallows or blue birds. The magically entertaining part comes, Allair says, in how you can give the feathers away: either hold them up or throw them into the air and they will swoop down and grab them from your hand or snatch them in the air. Swallows line their nests with feathers so their eggs have something soft to sit on. “It’s a wonderful practice they do.” Is it true that some birds will use hair? Yes, Allair says some birds love locks (animal, that is). “Again, it has to be natural.” And don’t put out long, course human or animal hair as it can potentially be dangerous to chicks in the nest. You could, however, put a collection of your dog’s hair in a suet cage.

You can also leave some leaves and small twigs in a conspicuous pile. Plant fluff is also permitted (and appreciated): cottonwoods or cattail fluff is ideal. Try draping it on top of some bushes or even stuff it into the crevices of trees for easy retrieval. Allair says you could also put it in an empty suet cage. Strips of bark from a fallen tree are also favourable. He’s purposefully left a dead honeysuckle on his property for the birds to source from. 

If you have chickadees and want them to use a nest box, fill the bottom with fresh wood shavings, about an inch or so deep. “Chickadees want to excavate,” says Allair. “They want a fixer upper.” The wood shavings will encourage them to nest. 

Robins use mud when creating their brick and mortar establishments. Create a small muddy puddle for them to draw from.

Here’s a case for banning canned spider killer: small songbirds like hummingbirds, warblers, and American goldfinches use spider webs in their nests. “The spider web creates nest elasticity,” Allair explains. “As the eggs hatch and the chicks get bigger, the nest stretches to accommodate them all.” He says the simple solution for these tiny birds and their even tinier nests, is to make your property a safe place for spiders. Plus, they’re an eight-legged entrée. “It’s a win-win on many levels.” 

Set up your neighbourhood watch
It doesn’t take long to realize the excitement that comes from seeing birds of all shapes, sizes and colours flock to your yard for refuge, taking up residence in a tree or sheltering under a shrub. “Birding is a viciously addictive hobby,” says Allair. “Helping them is a great way to connect with the natural world. We need more of this right now. It’s a great activity during the pandemic.”


Read more: A beginner’s guide to birding

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