What could possibly contain the color and verve of a Rufous Hummingbird? A Rufous Hummingbird nest, of course. With a cottony interior, finely woven bark shreds, and outer lichen fleck décor, it's just one example of how birds' homes can reflect and enrichen our appreciation of species themselves.
Readers of the Peterson Field Guide to North American Bird Nests, published earlier this year, will be treated to photographs and tips to match that nest, and hundreds of others, with its maker. Nearly 50 years since the renowned series first published a full book about nests, naturalists Casey McFarland, Matthew Monjello, and David Moskowitz are back with a stunning guide that features 650 breeding birds across the continent and 750 photographs of nests. Drawing on their birding expertise and the advances in photography over the last five decades, the resulting guide will encourage beginners and pros alike to cherish this unsung aspect of birding. This guide links bird behavior and evolution with the architecture of nests and highlights vital connections between birds and the habitats where they are born.
Audubon recently caught up with co-author David Moskowitz to hear his field stories and insights from the making of this book.
Audubon: I can imagine some adventures and acrobatics were required for the hundreds of nest photographs featuring design, materials, construction, and habitat in this book. Was there a nest quest that was particularly memorable?
David Moskowitz: The three of us each put in a ton field time to observe as many nests as possible, meet with experts, and recruit photographers who could help extend our efforts. It really added to the quality of the book because it includes the observations of so many different eyes.
But the quest for the picture we have of Varied Thrush nestlings comes to mind. A contributor named Emily Gibson found the nest, which was pretty high in a tree. We had a 10-foot ladder, so I put it up against a neighboring tree to minimize disturbance. When that wasn’t high enough, I affixed my camera to a 12-foot pole, which could be triggered by an app on my phone. While I balanced at the top of a 10-foot ladder, holding a 12-foot pole over my head, Emily stood on the ground looking through the camera via my phone. After shouting “a little left, a little right” for alignment, she captured the image in the perfect moment.
A: What goes through your mind when you first encounter a new bird nest, given how fragile and complex they can be?
DM: If it's an active nest, there's a good chance I found it because I was looking at bird behavior, like hearing nestlings or watching the parents and trying to figure out what’s happening. During those times, my first concern is to not disturb the birds or the nest, and then to figure out if I can responsibly observe it before leaving the area.
If it’s an inactive nest out of season, and it’s one of the species that does not reuse their nests, then I can be more comfortable. But before I go digging too deep into details, I ask about the ecological context first. What’s the ecosystem? And then, what's the habitat? After that, I finally proceed to the specifics about placement. How is this nest affixed to a branch? Resting on top? Woven? Hanging? I also consider the many structural features, too. What exactly is this nest made from? Are the contents layered? These are all types of clues you’ll need to figure out who made the nest.
A: Does encountering a bird nest affect you in ways that seeing or hearing its maker does not?
DM: As somebody who’s passionate about the ways tracks and sign reveal subtly reveal wildlife at work on this planet, bird nests are gems. An enormous amount of a bird’s annual and total life energy revolves around the breeding season, so nests distill a bird’s existence. Seeing birds is wonderful, but seeing a nest means seeing a bird’s life work, which is magnificent in its own way.
A: These gems have shaped bird evolution, too. How has the nest been a means for bird species to diversify and adapt?
DM: Nests have allowed birds to reproduce in places where the environment was too harsh for young to survive without protection. With nests’ insurance against predators and the elements, we can see birds rearing young in precarious places, like behind waterfalls, or on the ground in arctic, jungle, or desert ecosystems. Without nests, birds would have a much more limited range of places to survive. With the diverse techniques and adaptive styles of nest building, birds achieve uber-specialized niches in particular habitats.
A: As human-driven changes to climate and biodiversity pose dire challenges for many bird populations today, how can the vulnerability and resilience we see in nests invite us to better stewardship?
DM: Understanding the specific things that birds need to have successful nests is a helpful precursor to informed conservation choices. My work stems from the idea that building personal relationships with particular species or places helps us to care, and I see this book as an effort to support and inspire those relationships.
For folks doing scientific work, making accurate, non-invasive nest observations will be a good skill to confront the extinction crisis that threatens many birds. But nests seem to spark fascination and discovery within everyone, and that curiosity can drive conservation. Fifty years from now, I hope that people can still go out and find all of these wonderful nests.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Peterson Field Guide to North American Bird Nests, by Casey McFarland, Matthew Monjello, and David Moskowitz, 500 pages, $24.99. Buy it at Bookshop.org.