Life on Earth

Western Birds’ Nests + Eastern Birds’ Nests

Identifying bird technology

The baskets and fabrics made by birds are as admirable as their feathers. For years I’ve collected bird nests (a few in the image above) without knowing much about them. It took one obsessive Hal Harrison to find and photograph all of the nests and eggs of the birds in North America before I could begin to identify them.

Unfortunately, there is no real taxonomy for nest types, so identification is still a somewhat trial and error visual match. Environmental context — where a nest is found — is a bigger ID factor. But with some sleuthing in this book (two volumes, east and west) I’ve begun to identify species of nests. That has enlarged my appreciation of birds.

Oh, and these catalogs of many hundreds of nests also serves as splendid inspiration for human weavers.

-- KK 08/22/11


The site at which the nest is located is often diagnostic. While some species will choose a variety of sites, many are highly specialized, and this is important in identification. Water Pipits nest on the ground in tundras; Chimney Swifts nest in chimneys, and White-throated Swifts nest in steep cliffs; all wood-peckers nest in tree cavities and so do Prothonotary Warblers; storm-petrels, kingfishers, and Bank Swallows nest in burrows; MacGillivray's Warblers nest in low bushes while Olive, Hermit, and Townsend's Warblers nest high in conifers; orioles build beautiful hanging baskets but Poor-wills build no nest at all.

The nest itself is described in detail. Material used will vary with availability. For some species this has been noted, but readers should bear in mind that Spanish Moss would be no more available to a bird in Montana than spruce needles would be to a bird in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The basic structure of the next of most species is so uniformly true to type that even though the materials used may vary, the format generally does not. An American Robin's nest in Washington or Oregon with mosses built into it still looks very much like a Robin's nest in Arkansas with mud and grasses predominating.
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