Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



Birds' Nests
Nature Bulletin No. 541-A   October 26, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

A bird is not taught how to build a nest. When it builds its first one, it has never even seen a nest built. So far as is known, each kind makes its own style of nest and does as good a job the first time as it does in later years. It is guided by instinct as ii each had a sort of built-in blueprint. While the design for each species remains the same, similar materials may be substituted. For example, a house wren sometimes uses hairpins in place of slender twigs; and the crested flycatcher, which habitually builds a piece of castoff snake skin into its nest, may substitute a cellophane cigar wrapper.

A nest with eggs or young is a critical time in the life history of a bird. Losses are heavy. They fall victim to storms, accidents, or any of a long list of predatory birds, mammals and snakes. As protection against enemies, nests on the ground, such as those of the meadow lark and the bobwhite quail, are hidden in the grass. Many, perhaps most, of our songbirds build nests above ground in brier patches, thorny thickets and tangles of vines. These are so well concealed that we seldom realize how many of these summer neighbors we have had until the leaves fall in autumn and expose them to view.

Our Swallow Cliff forest preserve is named for a colony of bank swallows which formerly honeycombed a steep bank near U. S. 45 and Illinois Route 83. Their burrows, often several feet deep, end in nests of straw, grass and rootlets, lined with feathers.

The chimney swift, once a "hollow tree" swift, has moved into man's buildings and nests deep down inside of unused chimneys. The nest is a shallow basket of twigs cemented together with gluey saliva. Because the swift cannot take off from the ground, dead twigs are snapped off and grabbed on the fly. After the saliva has dried, this framework is rigid and strong; but prolonged rain can soften it and spill the eggs or young. The nests of a cliff-dwelling relative in the Orient, made entirely of saliva, are collected and marketed, either dried or canned, for the famous bird's nest soup.

The barn swallow plasters cup-shaped mud nests, lined with chicken feathers, inside of barns or under bridges. Pellets of wet mud are pressed into place and reinforced with blades of dead grass. With the exception of eagles and certain hawks it is one of the few birds that uses the same nest more than one year. Under bridges we also find the phoebe's nest of mud, plant fibers and hair, camouflaged with an outer layer of moss. The tiny hummingbird saddles a small branch with a cup of fine plant cotton the size of a walnut shell. Cobwebs are used to bind it fast and attach a covering of lichens. The wood pewee builds a similar nest, somewhat larger, also disguised with lichens to look like a knot on a limb.

Among our local birds, nests vary enormously -- some simple, some complex. The nighthawk merely broods its eggs on barren fields, gravel beaches or flat gravel roofs in towns and cities. The irresponsible female cowbird drops an egg here and there in other birds ' nests and takes no part in the care and rearing of her young. On the other extreme, the Baltimore oriole weaves an elaborate deep pouch of string, yarn, grasses, hair and fiber hung at the tip of a swaying branch on some large tree.

As a rule, the she-bird does all the planning and building.

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs