Wildlife Blog: National Nest Box Week
Take a walk down any street with trees, or to your local park, look up and you are guaranteed to spot a bird’s nest. While we may not think much of a pile of twigs in passing but nest building can be incredibly intricate and is considered by some to be one of nature’s most ancient and underappreciated art forms.
Despite spotting them almost everywhere we go, sometimes our birds need a helping hand (or wing) to find the space in order to raise their chicks – this is why we celebrate National Nest Box Week. Coinciding with St Valentine’s Day, when birds are also starting to ‘couple up’, birding charities around the UK ask people to put up a nest box for our newly matched birds and give their family a head start in life.
Building a nest is no easy task and, in the shadow of human civilisation, is becoming more difficult with each passing year. Have you ever wondered what it takes to build a nest? Find out more below...
Why do birds build nests?
For the same reason that we build houses, birds need nests for shelter, security and a place to raise their young. However, some birds live in very densely packed colonies and therefore simply don’t have room for nests. Nest building is also not unique to birds. Mammals such as chimpanzees and the more local hazel dormouse, some species of frog, and even fish can build nests!
How do they do it?
Unlike humans, birds do not have thumbs so picking up nesting materials brings its own challenges. Birds do, however, have dexterous beaks and most have mobile toes that can be used to manipulate items. Birds will predominantly build their nests using natural materials including twigs, leaves, moss, feathers, mud, saliva and even spider’s webs!
The process begins by dropping twigs onto the chosen branch and hoping that they become lodged until they have enough materials to weave. Eventually the birds will begin to intricately twist and meticulously stick their nesting materials together – this is where the mud, saliva and webs come in.
There are many different ways to build a nest and many species of bird will have specific techniques and designs. Birds mainly learn from their parents and by watching other similar birds, while some develop their own methods by trial and error. Nests can be defined by their shape, materials and/or location. Many bird’s nests are so distinctive that scientists can identify which bird species lives there, simply by studying the nest. You can see a range of nests at Howe Park Wood Education Centre (when we are next open!).
Where are nests built?
The last important factor for a bird to consider is where to build their nest. The nest should be safe from predators, have plenty of food nearby and be sheltered from the elements. However, if you have ever watched any nature documentary, you’ll know that this isn’t always possible! With over 600 bird species in the UK, space can often become an issue. Some birds will choose unsuitable spots for their nests simply because there isn’t enough room in an ideal spot.
The needs of the bird and its chicks will also differ based on how they spend their lives. For example, a barn owl needs a lot of space for its chicks which get very large, so they choose to nest in hollowed out trees, old barns and other similar structures. This habitat is also well protected from the rain, which is very important since owls do not have waterproof feathers, whereas a wader (such as the moorhen) which doesn’t fly particularly well, is best suited to building a nest from reeds and aquatic grasses on the water’s edge.
Does every bird build a nest?
Not all birds need to build nests to survive. The Emperor penguin for example just pop its egg onto its feet and thousands of birds huddle together to keep both themselves, and the eggs safe from winter storms. A more local example of extreme bird intelligence and “energy conservation” is the cuckoo. A common misconception is that cuckoos do not build their own nests. This is untrue and some cuckoo species are known to even build communal nests for group protection. However, they are particularly famous for their tendency to lay their eggs in the nests of other birds! This technique allows the parent birds to save valuable energy and keep food for themselves. The chick will hatch before the other species’ eggs, tricking the unwitting parents into believing it is their own chick. In the meantime, the chick will push all other eggs out of the nest so that it reaps all the rewards of having the undivided attention of the adopted parent!
What can we do to help?
No matter the time of the year, birds will always appreciate some extra shelter. If you have some suitable space, you can put up a nest box and hope that the birds will use it. You can find information on where is best to put up a box, and even how to build one yourself by following our tutorial video here.
You can also support them by providing nutritious food at the right time of year, planting flowers that attract pollinators (and are in turn consumed by our insect-eating birds) and providing a bird bath or water bowl. You can also create your own bird feeders, find out out how here.