Jun 21, 2017 | Featured Web Article

Eleven Exceptional Nest Builders

A killdeer and its eggs are well camouflaged. The nest is little more than a scrape in the ground.

Here are descriptions of 11 common North American birds and their unique nests.


It's not so much the building of the killdeer's nest that warrants its inclusion on this list. After all, the killdeer nest is a mere scrape made in gravelly soil. It's the lengths to which adult killdeer will go to protect the nest. Adults will begin calling a piercing dee-dee-dee when danger threatens, then one or both will perform a broken-wing display, trying to lure predators away from the nest by feigning injury (and thus looking like an easy meal to a fox, raccoon, or other nest predator).

2. Black-chinned hummingbird.

All hummingbirds build amazing, tiny, stretchable nests, but the black-chinned hummingbird seems to be the most willing of the hummingbird species to nest near human habitation. Hummingbird enthusiasts in the Southwest have noticed a trend in the past decade or so of black-chinned hummingbirds nesting under the eaves of houses, in open sheds and outbuildings, and on the wire hooks of hanging plants. The main impetus for these close-to-people nests seems to be to get out of the wind, since high winds can blow tiny hummingbird eggs and nestlings right out of the nest. What a treat to have a hummingbird nest so close!

3. Cliff swallow.

Cliff swallows build their gourd-shaped nests one bill full of mud at a time, adhering to a cliff face or, in modern times, to the side of a barn, bridge, or culvert. A single nest takes about two weeks to construct and involves as many as 2,100 individual trips from the mud source o the nest site. Once built, however, these nests are a safe and comfortable place to raise a family, especially since cliff swallow colonies may include as many as 1,000 nesting pairs.

4. Brown creeper.

The brown creeper splits the difference between being an open-cup nester and a cavity nester. Since this species makes its living by gleaning insects and larvae from beneath the bark of trees, it's no surprise that creepers also nest beneath bark. But they do not excavate a cavity. Instead they find a large, loose piece of bard and build a hammock-like nest beneath it, against the trunk of the tree. The nest is made of small branches, bark bits, pine needles, and spider silk and is lines with moss or feathers.

5. Baltimore oriole.

In North America, the orioles are the champions of pendent nest construction, and the Baltimore oriole, being a common nesting species across much of eastern North America, often places its nest on the end of a drooping branch over water or a roadway. It's made from grasses and plant fiber and lines with soft plant down or animal fur. The Baltimore oriole can complete this very complex by sturdy nest in as few as five days.

6. Chimney swift.

Chimney swifts come by their name honestly—they nest almost exclusively in chimenys (though some nest in hollow trees, caves, wells, and other chimney-like structures). The chimney swift's nest is a tiny hammock made of fine twigs glued together and to the chimney wall with the bird's sticky, clear saliva. Chimney swifts gather the twigs for the nest in flight, swooping and hovering long enough to grab a twig and snap it off the top of a tree.

7. Pileated woodpecker.

A few springs ago, I discovered a male pileated woodpecker excavating a nesting cavity in a big-toothed aspen on our farm. I watched the entire nesting process from inside a portable photography blind. What an amazing excavation job! A carpenter with power tools could not have created the cavity any faster. In the end, two young pileateds fledged from a cavity that was 8 to 10 inches wide and 18 inches deep. The entry hole was just wide enough for the adults to slip in and out while tending the nest.

8. Chickadees.

Members of the chickadee family are clever and feisty nesters. As secondary cavity nesters they rely on old woodpecker holes, naturally occurring cavities, or nest boxes for their sites. They build their nest from mosses and soft plant material and line them with feathers and animal hair. When leaving the eggs to go foraging, the adult chickadees cover the eggs with fur to hide them from nosy neighboring birds and to keep them warm.

9. Ovenbird.

Although not a common backyard bird, the ovenbird deserves major kudos for its namesake Dutch oven-shaped nest. Built in the open on the woodland floor, the domed nest is made of leaves, branches, dried grasses, and other natural materials, helping it blend in perfectly with its surroundings. Inside, the nest is lined with animal hair, and the adults go in and out through a tiny arched opening.

10. Eastern phoebe.

I always marvel at the audacious nest sites chosen by eastern phoebes. They will build their mud, grass, and moss nests on door frames, porch lights, and window sills, as well as in old buildings, under bridges, and in caves. They seem to try to select sites that are difficult for snakes to access. Alas, the nesting phoebes on our farm often lose later broods to these hungry reptiles. The return of the phoebes here in southeastern Ohio is always a sign that spring is on its way. We have a soft spot for this species, having named our first child in its honor.

11. Cactus wren.

As its name suggests, the cactus wren is heavily associated with members of the cactus family in the desert Southwest. Cactus wrens prefer to make their globe-shaped nests in cholla cactus or other thorny shrubs. The nests are bulky structures about a foot wide, made of grasses and plant stems and lined with feathers. It is believed that the prickly, thorny location of the nests helps thwart would-be nest predators.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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