Anna’s Hummingbird cup-shaped nest. Photo by Duke Coonrad, Audubon Photography Awards 

by Dan McDougall-Treacy

If we’re awake in the hour or two before dawn these days we likely hear the “cheerily cheerily cheery-up” of the American Robin, singing his heart out. His urgency to attract a mate and begin working together on nest construction can be a heartening signal to us bird lovers. A bird’s nest may evoke images of procreation and domesticity, or marvel at the engineering genius found in the details of construction. Whatever the source of our fascinations, a bird’s nest is an awe-inspiring curiosity. 

This season of renewal invites us to “up our game” in our appreciation of birds. A bit of knowledge and intentionality will go a long way toward bringing birds more deeply into our daily lives. Perhaps we’ll enrich our bird observation practices with deeper understanding of the mating and nesting process of diverse species. We might be tidying up and planning our gardens and creating nesting opportunities for birds in our yards or communities.  

Among other strategies for containing and incubating their clutch of eggs, many familiar birds create a nest from materials gathered in the environment. Varying species may construct a cup-shaped nest in the branches of a tree or shrub or may bring the needed materials into an enclosed space such as a tree cavity or nest box, or furtively hide their nest in a slight depression on the ground. Some species – orioles and bushtits for example – create a pendulous nest, hanging inconspicuously from a tree branch.


Bushtit’s hanging nest. Briand Sanderson, Canva

Nests consist of a wide variety of materials, each chosen for a purpose. Twigs and grasses placed or woven into a lattice provide structure and form. Mud sometimes serves as a type of binding agent to hold things together. For cushioning and insulation of eggs, fluffy items such as moss, spiderwebs, feathers, or hair are arranged to form a lining for the nest. Concealment and camouflage are achieved by the addition of leaves or other items. The opportunity to view a collection of used nests will show you a tremendous variety of materials ingeniously employed.  

Whether birding in the field or “slow birding” from the vantage of a window view or a garden bench, tuning in to the behavior of birds helps us recognize their entire devotion to the energy-intensive process of raising young. With a bit of extra attention, we can hear their amazing songs, notice that they are forming pairs, conducting courtship displays, copulating, carrying nesting materials and food, chasing potential predators, caring for and protecting their young, and nurturing their fledglings toward independence.  

Consider: many of the birds that raise their broods here in Seattle have flown hundreds (or thousands!) of migration miles just to be here. And of course, many of our local birds are year-round residents. Some species of birds raise two or more clutches of young in a season (depending on suitability of conditions and the well-being of the parents). With nest construction going on somewhere and anywhere all around us, let’s contribute to their chances for success. Hopefully where we can discretely watch and marvel. 

Your garden, deck, or balcony may already have hospitable features that attract birds. If your space is rich in native plantings the likelihood is higher that a diverse and bountiful supply of insects will be present to feed the nestlings that you hope to “sponsor.” Birds nest at varying heights and so a garden planted in multiple layers (trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers) is more attractive to a variety of species.  

In planning this year’s garden, take time to include items that birds will use in nest construction. These items can be arranged in devices such as suet cages or mesh bags or strewn and stashed in out-of-the-way niches in the garden. There are also commercially available contraptions for offering nest material. 

Dark-eyed Junco with nesting materials. Veronica Palmer, Audubon Photography Awards

Twine and string cut in to short pieces, feathers, wool, and plant materials like leaves, twigs, and fluff make good nesting materials.

Useful Nest Materials 

      • Dead twigs 
      • Dead leaves 
      • Dry grass (free of pesticides) 
      • Feathers 
      • Plant fluff or down (cattail, cottonwood) 
      • Moss 
      • Bark strips 
      • Pine needles
      • Alpaca wool

Harmful Nest Materials 

      • plastic strips 
      • tinsel 
      • cellophane 
      • aluminum foil 
      • dryer lint 
      • human hair 
      • long pieces of twine and string

    Naturally, birds will make every effort to hide and camouflage their nests. This is particularly the case in birds such as robins, which create a cup-shaped nest and place it discretely in a tree 10-25 feet from the ground. Or the Song Sparrow, whose nest is usually hidden less than three feet from the ground in or beneath a shrub or beside a tuft of tall grass. If we’re attentive, we may notice signs that a nest is being built or is located nearby. To avoid disrupting the nesting process or cause the eggs to be abandoned, we might only be permitted the joys of observing the activities of the parents coming and going. There is still satisfaction in seeing nestlings and fledglings being nurtured and coaxed toward independence.

    Song Sparrow nest hidden in the grass by Jack VandenHeuvel, Canva 

    While cup-shaped nesters suffer about 50% predation in their broods, cavity-nesting birds are those that place the nest hidden inside an enclosure such as a hole in a tree thus offering protection from predators. While woodpeckers have evolved the ability to create a nest hole in living wood, “secondary nesters” use previously excavated holes for their nests. In a human-dominated environment there are fewer dead trees in which these birds can raise young. A nest box is an excellent option for hosting some of these commonly seen species–chickadees, nuthatches, and Bewick’s Wrens, to name a few.  

    Nest boxes available at the Seattle Audubon Nature Shop

    Wood Ducks utilizing a nest box, Joe-Subolefsky, Audubon Photography Awards

    Nest boxes are commercially available in many forms. Many are simply decorative and ill-suited to the needs of our avian friends. For a nest box that is designed with birds in mind a reliable option is to visit the Nature Shop, where the volunteer staff is knowledgeable and helpful. There are other retail establishments that emphasize birds and birding – gift shops, not so much.  

    If you are handy with tools (or interested in a starter DIY project) making a nest box yourself is a solid option. A good nest box is well-constructed, it keeps birds dry and warm/cool, and it keeps out predators. Plans and materials lists for nest boxes are widely available. An ideal starting place for a project like this might be at the Nest Watch website for Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Seattle Audubon has also offered a workshop-style class (in partnership with Northeast Seattle Tool Library) in building your own nest box – hands-on, and you go home with your own piece of handiwork. Watch the Seattle Audubon website for upcoming classes 

    In planning your nest box project, decide in advance the species of bird you hope to attract, as the entry hole should be sized accordingly. As you are gathering your tools, you might realize you don’t have a hole saw. (Rather than buy a tool that you might only use once, consider borrowing it from a tool library.) Materials should be durable and non-toxic. Select a design that provides for easy maintenance and cleaning. Consider placement of your nest box: located for easy viewing enjoyment? Does it face in a direction favored by your target species? How will you mount it to deter local nest predators? The Seattle Audubon Nature Shop can help coach you on some of these factors to set you, and the birds, up for success. 

    And finally, patience. Your well-made nest box may not receive immediate attention. Meanwhile continue to enjoy the bird-friendly environment just as you always have. At the end of the nesting season, check and clean your nest box. And like that robin, expect the next generation. 

    American Robin chicks by Mary Berry, Audubon Photography Awards.

    About Dan McDougall-Treacy

    Dan McDougall-Treacy first enjoyed and learned about birds as a Cub Scout. Fast forward to 2016, when he was accepted to the Seattle Audubon Master Birder program. Dan is a retired social worker and has volunteered with Seattle Audubon since 2017.

    More on Nests

    Upcoming Class: Avian Architects

    Nests and How Birds Build Them with Connie Sidles

    Online: Wednesdays, April 26, May 3, 10, and 17 from 7-8:00pm

    More information and registration: CLICK HERE

    Upcoming Class: Nest Box

    Learn more about nest boxes, and have the opportunity to build one yourself with Dan McDougall-Treacy.

    In-person: Tuesday, April 25, 7:00 – 8:30 at The Seattle Audubon Nature Shop, with optional hands-on nest box building instruction on Monday, May 1, 7:00 – 8:30 at NE Seattle Tool Library.

    More information: CLICK HERE

    Explore other articles in this issue of EarthCare Northwest

    Member Lending Library: Birds, Travel, & Behavior 

    by Mike Seamans and Shirli Axelrod 

    If you’ve never set foot in the basement of the Nature Shop, you may not be aware of the treasure trove of bird books available for our members. Take a peek inside our Member Lending Library, and borrow a book during your next visit. 

    Five Destinations in North America for Bird-related Travel 

    Recommendations from our members 

    Just as birds are in the midst of their spring migration, you may also be feeling the pull to plan your next vacation. Pack your field guide and binoculars and check out one of these great birding destinations in North America to plan your next trip around. 

    From Young Birder, to Collision Monitor, to Lifelong Advocate 

    Spotlight on teen member Yoon Lee 

    Yoon isn’t sure where to credit his fascination with birds – Wild Kratts television show, an Anna’s Hummingbird on his school campus, or a global pandemic. Whatever his inspiration, it is here to stay, and he is busy creating a better future for birds in our community through his activism.