This beginner’s guide to birds’ nests helps you to understand why birds build nests, and how to help. The most important thing is to NOT offer hair, string, lint etc. This all can harm and choke or strangle, and fur or human hair often contains chemicals or medications that can harm.
Birds have been building nests for thousands of years, they don’t need our help. But birds’ nests are a wonderful inspiration for true biodegradable architecture. Also see the posts on how to help our garden birds, and how to stop birds flying into windows (don’t plant foliage inside windows where birds could see).
Although birds build different kinds of nests, the way they build them differs. Some males sit on the eggs, others scarper after mating (sounds like some men!) Some birds lay nests on the ground and others in high trees. A few use birds built by other birds, and a few make several nests a year. Chicks depart depending on their breed (eagles stay the longest).
Who knows how a bird knows how to make a nest? Like migration, it’s pretty fascinating. Most ‘glue’ nests together with their own saliva, mud or even silk from spider webs. Some even add herbs and spices, to keep away bacteria.
And many tuck nests into trees and nest-boxes, to protect from predators. Nearly all nests are shaped as a cup, for easy sitting on! You likely won’t see many nests. But you probably will see birds with twigs in their mouth, a sure sign they are building one.
Choose a Safe Nesting Box
- Don’t encourage birds or use nest-boxes if you have cats nearby (keep them inside at dawn and dusk, when birds come out to feed). If you site one, RSPB has info on where to place (and which ones to use by species). Owls appreciate them in quiet undisturbed locations.
- When you are sure baby birds have flown, clean with boiling water (never chemicals or flea powders) before drying out thoroughly and replacing the lid. Many nest-boxes get raided by other wildlife looking for an egg. See the above site, to do your homework before siting.
- Go for simple and safe, over elaborate. Many gift shops now sell nest boxes shaped like windmills or ‘cottages’, but in fact, birds prefer simple boxes, and the elaborate add-ons could be dangerous. RSPB says it’s more important to visit their site and choose the right type of box (with the right sized nesting holes) and sited in the correct positions.
- Some also have toxic paints and metal roofs (which could cook a baby bird on sunny days (metal and plastic also have condensation, which could cause chicks to become damp and cold). RSPB like traditional wood with a nontoxic water preservative, and no dangerous sharp edges, nails, unnecessary fixtures or gaps. It should also have good insulation and be free from perches, bright colours (attracts predators) nor be too shallow or deep or smooth.
Don’t Help Too Much!
Audobon says never donate human hair, string, fur or lint (goes mouldy and can choke). Ensure weed barrier is tacked safely, as birds may pull it up. Avoid pine needles, cocoa/rubber mulch (unsafe for birds & pets – can poison, puncture or choke). Birds will naturally find organic grass clippings, leaves, twigs and mud.
- If there’s natural food aplenty, let birds find their own food. See how to help garden birds on what NOT to feed birds (mouldy or stale bread, or anything with fat like buttered sandwiches can harm).
- Organic gardens encourage caterpillars. If planting natural berries etc, know pet-toxic plants to avoid
- If you find a baby bird on the ground, often parents are nearby. RSPB has good info on what to do if it needs help. Move it if near a road (a short distance to somewhere safe for parents to find). If the parents do not return, put in a quiet ventilated box (Wild Bird Rehab says to use a paper bag or string-free towel/t-shirt on the bottom). Then call a vet or wildlife rescue). If the chick is fully-feathered, it has likely left the nest.
- Gift your wildlife rescue A Beginner’s Guide to Rearing Baby Birds. They will surely appreciate it.