Birding: Choosing a nesting site |

Birding: Choosing a nesting site

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist

It is that time of year when birds are choosing a nesting site. Some birds will use the nesting site only during the summer to build a nest, lay eggs, and raise their young. Other species will use the nesting site for this purpose, but will also use it during the winter as a roosting site. A roosting site is a location where birds can congregate (or use singularly) for protection from the wind, rain, and snow. Let’s talk about what birds are looking for in a nesting site and how they build their nests. This may give you an idea as to what you can do in your backyard to make it more desirable to attract nesting birds.

A bird’s primary consideration when choosing a nesting site is security. Protection from predators and proximity to food is of vital importance to the success of a bird’s offspring.

Abundant and easily obtained sources of food allow for more time to be devoted to better nest-site selection and construction of higher-quality nests, along with more time and energy to be vigilant in defense of the nesting territory from intruders and predators.

Chickadees are cavity nesters. They will excavate their own nest site in a rotten or decaying wood, use an old woodpecker hole, or use a nesting box. They add a cozy nest on a moss base. Mountain Chickadees may excavate a cavity as well in very loose wood. They will also nest under rock crevices in a bank or in a hole in the ground. They may add a cozy lining of fur to the nest.

The Cactus Wren builds an elaborate gourd-shaped nest in about 10 days, and may fuss with improvements for another several weeks. A male House Wren may lay claim to a nesting cavity by filling it with more than 400 small twigs. If the female likes what she sees, she will then take over, adding the nest cup and lining it with grass, inner bark, hair, and feathers.

Robins usually return to the same area to nest each year and may occasionally use last year’s nest again after some renovation. The American Robin will use mud in its nest to give it strength.

Mourning Doves’ nests are sticks woven together by the female with materials collected by the male. These nests are usually very flimsy and are easily blown apart. Neither robins nor Mourning Doves are cavity nesters and prefer to build an open nest in an uncovered area.

Both male and female House Finches display a strong tendency to return to the same area to breed, often occupying the same nest site as the previous year. Ironically, House Finches rarely use bird houses to build their nest in; instead they seem to prefer locations such as coniferous trees, cactus plants, ledges, street lamps, ivy on building, and hanging planters.

Hummingbirds use spider webs as glue to attach the nest to a tree branch as well as a binding agent for the building materials. The nest is about the size of a golf ball; about 1.5 inches in diameter.

The American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinches are some of the latest breeding songbirds, waiting to nest until mid-to-late summer when thistle seeds and down are readily available. American Goldfinches prefer to nest in habitats with trees and shrubs and usually place their nest four to 10 feet high.

The Oriole nest is an engineering masterpiece. The female weaves a hanging-basket nest with plant fibers, grasses, vine and tree bark and sometimes string or yarn placed out on the small twigs of a branch six to 45 feet in the air. This keeps them safe from most predators.

It takes as many as 12 days for an Oriole to weave its nest. One Baltimore Oriole was observed spending 40 hours building a nest with about 10,000 stitches and the tying of thousands of knots, all with its beak.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is known to bill-sweep a crushed insect around their nest cavity’s entrance hole. Presumably this practice helps to deter predators using the chemical-defense mechanisms from the insect. The Red-breasted Nuthatch will line the entrance to its nesting cavity with drops of sticky conifer resin. It is thought that this may be a tactic to discourage predators or nest competitors from entering. The nuthatches avoid the resin themselves by diving directly into the cavity without ever touching the sides of the entry hole.

Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column.

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