The nesting season begins in early spring, and this can go on all the way through to late summer for some species. By providing a sheltered environment, or leaving useful materials nearby, you can help birds raise their young in comfort and safety.
Billions of birds can obviously build nests without us, but there is absolutely no harm in lending a helping hand.
The species of a bird will of course determine the kind of nest it needs, but on the whole most birds will create a structure to safely contain their eggs and their nestlings when they hatch. Some nests appear to be remarkably vulnerable, such as shallow dips in bare earth like with stone curlews, whilst others can be hugely elaborate, like the tree-enveloping colonies made by social weaver birds.
Nests usually have one thing in common, though, and that’s layers – a tougher, more durable outer one, and then getting softer as you go further in, until the final innermost comfortable lining. The most familiar nest type is a cup made of some sort of vegetation and often some mud.
Do birds need our help?
Billions of birds can obviously build nests without us, but there is absolutely no harm in lending a helping hand, if done in the right way. Nesting birds are protected by law in many parts of the world, where it is a criminal offence to destroy or loot a nest. We can play our part in learning which environments those different birds need for their nests, and help them prosper and grow.
The most common birds we are likely to see are the garden birds, and they face a range of threats that can impact their nesting success. Aside from housing development sprawl and habitat loss encroaching on territories and taking away their nesting materials, keeping up appearances can mean we sometimes go a little too far. A bird won’t begin the nest building process if it’s not safe, and you can bet your life they’ve already been scoping out your garden, not only for neighbourhood kitties but also landscaping activities.
Providing multiple nesting sites and a range of different materials will almost always guarantee your garden will be chosen for a breeding site.
Providing multiple nesting sites and a range of different materials will almost always guarantee your garden will be chosen for a breeding site. If you do want to help birds with their nest-making, there are some steps you need to take to be sure their nests will be safe. One of the easiest and quickest things we can do, especially in urban areas, is make sure as many birds as possible can find some really useful nesting materials, both natural and artificial.
To ensure birds have access to adequate natural construction material, you may be pleased to know that you need to leave your garden messy. Fallen leaves and twigs, grass cuttings, pine needles, moss, lichen, and straw make excellent nest materials for many birds. If there are any places where you can let this debris build-up such as fence corners or in the elbows of tree branches, even better. But if your personality won’t allow you to leave all this lying around, and you simply must “tidy up” a bit, then think about having an open compost pile, where you can always add fallen branches and leaves on top, where birds can access them. You can also gather any mown grass and leave that in small piles to dry, or hang leaves and twigs in a mesh cage or extra feeder tube, next to the food ones as well. Birds can eat and gather building materials at the same time, saving energy in one journey.
Birds who nest in cavities like owls, wrens, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and treecreepers all prefer hollow parts of dead or dying trees, and fallen logs, so if you have any of these around then leave them where they are, as natural nesting areas can’t beat an artificial one, and birds will always favour these. Competition among cavity-nesting birds is fierce, especially when there are large populations of such birds nearby, like starlings or sparrows.
Nest-making is an exhausting business.
Providing good cover for a nest site is essential to ensure the chicks are undisturbed whilst they grow and are finally ready to leave the nest. Planting species that fruit in winter and spring, and ones which offer dense foliage for protection, like ivy, hawthorn, rosehips and holly is an excellent way to attract nesting birds. If you have hedges then try to remember to cut them back in the winter, and then leave them during the spring and summer. Ground-dwelling birds will also benefit from these hidden areas.
Mature trees are perfect for many nesting birds, especially evergreens as they won’t lose their leaves in the autumn, providing year-round protection. If you already have established trees such as spruce or pine, then leave these needle droppings as well – they can make excellent “pins” to bind nests together, as well as a beautifully warm inner layer, and we all know the feeling of a soft dry carpet of pine needles on a forest floor. If you don’t, you’re missing out.
Birds will even use moulted snakeskin if they see any, but a fantastic component that many birds like to use is spider silk. This exceptionally strong and flexible material holds nesting materials together like glue, and provides enough give for the nest to stretch as the chicks grow. Allowing spiders to weave their webs among your tree branches, fence posts and ornamental plants will attract birds like hummingbirds, warblers, and goldfinches.
Birds such as the barn swallow and robin also use mud in the construction of their nests, so if you have an earthy area of your garden that gets particularly wet, top it up with water on dry days.
There are some materials not found in the natural world that birds would doubtless be grateful for if they could tell us. We have an abundance of natural or harmless artificial materials at hand in our homes that may provide that final missing piece to a strong, safe nest. Some birds like orioles, sparrows, and robins weave their nests, so if you have any string, yarn or natural rope fibres, as well as any undyed cotton or wool, leave this outside for the taking, but always make sure the lengths are no more than 2 inches or 5 cm. Birds can easily get tangled in anything longer.
Clippings of human hair can be offered, as can any fur or hair leftover from grooming your pets. This type of material is very insulating and perfect for the inner lining of nests. Again, make sure you cut any long strands into pieces around 2 inches / 5 cm long.
The egg-laying process itself requires a lot of calcium, and you can help replenish this in female birds by drying out eggshells in the oven (around 20 minutes at 250 degrees), and crumbling them then spreading the pieces on the ground.
Nest-making is an exhausting business and a tired bird creates a poor home for their chicks, so: keep those feeders topped up, and remember, many bird species have multiple broods in one season, too, so keep those materials coming.
There is rarely a more satisfying sight for a birdwatcher to see than a clutch of fledglings emerging from a nest on their first flight day, and these young birds will follow their parents for all the tips and tricks of staying alive. That means they will soon learn where your feeders are, and it won’t be long before you’ll see them flitting from feeder to feeder, learning the ways of the world, and all the help that awaits them from you.