Birds are incredible architects. Gathering material from the surrounding landscape using only their beak and feet, they construct compact and sturdy temporary homes in which they raise their young. Each nest reflects a bird’s knowledge and use of its habitat as it finds sticks and twigs, mud and clay, spiderwebs and cattails, lichens and mosses, animal fur, and more, and then binds them together in a unique construction.
There are dozens of nest types, each suited to certain species or lifestyles. And perhaps what’s most astonishing is that, during nesting season, these carefully crafted abodes are all around us—but they are so well hidden we hardly notice they are there at all.
The list of seemingly miraculous nests could go on forever. Here is a short list of our favorites that represent but a slice of the avian world’s remarkable structures.
Cactus Wren (above)
To hide from the desert’s oppressive sun, Cactus Wrens build a roof over their babies’ heads. Twigs and dried grasses form the walls and feathers line the inner chamber (including an entry hallway). Other crafters of globular nests: magpies, Verdin, and American Dipper.
This intricate hanging basket belongs to a Baltimore Oriole. A female gathers long fibrous threads, such as grasses, hair, string, and Spanish moss, and weaves them together. She lines the nest with cottonwood or willow and feathers. Other hanging-nest weavers: kinglets, vireos, and Bushtit.
This delicate nest, just 1.5 inches wide, is crafted by a female Anna’s Hummingbird. It’s made with downy materials like cattail and feathers, bound in spiderweb, and decorated with lichen. Other artists of very small cups: gnatcatchers, Least Flycatcher, and Cerulean Warbler.
On a cliffside or under a bridge, Cliff Swallows nest in colonies of hundreds or thousands. They gather mud to form pellets in their bills and sculpt tubular nests by placing one pellet at a time. They line the nest with dry grass. Other mud-cup nesters: Black and Eastern Phoebes.
Hairy Woodpeckers hammer out cavities in the soft wood of a snag or a living tree with fungal heart rot. The entrance hole is just two inches wide, but leads to a cavity up to a foot deep. Other cavity nesters: bluebirds, nuthatches, and chickadees.
Ospreys pile sticks and branches on ledges, treetops, and poles, then line them with moss, algae mats, and dried seaweed. If reused several years in a row or even for generations, their nests can grow as big as 6 feet wide and 12 feet deep. Other builders of large stick nests: egrets, herons, eagles, and storks.
The neotropical ovenbird family is named for the nest of the Rufous Hornero. They mold rock-hard “ovens” from clay, mud, and straw and line the inner chamber with grass. Users of vacant ovens: swallows and flycatchers.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue as “Avian Architects.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.