Late fall through early spring is a great time to look for abandoned bird nests in our parks. These nests provided homes for young birds last year and are so well built that they have lasted through the harshest of winter weather
When you come upon a nest during your hike, there are a few things to consider when trying to identify which bird species built the nest.
Different bird species live and nest in different habitats or places. Some birds nest along river banks, while others nest on the ground, on a cliff, in a shrub or dead tree, in a tangle of vines, in trees, or even floating on water. In winter, the easiest nests to find are the ones in trees, shrubs, and vines.
How far off the ground is the nest? Birds such as robins will nest 10 -20 feet off the ground, while a cardinal will build a nest 1 -10 feet off the ground. As with habitat, nest height can help with nest identification.
The overall shape of the nest is also a clue as to which species built the nest. Goldfinches, like many bird species, build cup-shaped nests. Mourning doves build saucer-like nests. Marsh wrens build a ball-shaped nests and orioles build a pendant-shaped nest.
The nests that we see in winter are made from sturdy materials such as plant matter (grass, bark, twigs, small roots, and tree branches), which may be held together by dried mud or spider webs.
Some common nests you may see on your walk:
One of the most common nests that you can see is an American robin nest. Robins usually build their nests in coniferous trees, like pine trees, that have a couple of horizontal branches near each other. They will also build their nests in the eaves of buildings and gutters. Robins use twigs and dead grass to build a cup-shaped platform nest. Once the nest is formed, the inside of the nest is reinforced with soft mud then the inside of the nest is lined with dry fine grass. These nests are between 10 and 20 feet off the ground and are quite durable thanks to the mud lining.
Blue jays build their cup-shaped nests on horizontal branches or forks in tree branches. They build their nests in conifer or deciduous trees like maple and oak trees 5 to 20 feet off the ground. The nest is built from twigs, strips of bark, lichen, moss, and grass. Sometimes the blue jay nest builder will use mud to hold the nest together like a robin. The nest is lined with small roots.
This chipping sparrow nest from Hamlin Beach State Park shows the cup-shaped nest made from dry grass and small roots. Look for these nests in deciduous trees between 1 and 10 feet off the ground.
An American goldfinch nest sits in a sapling along the edge of a field in Allegany State Park. This cup shaped nest is made of tiny roots and plant fibers which are held together by spider webs. Look for these nests between 1 and 30 feet off the ground.
Ospreys are commonly seen nesting on the light poles at Wellesley Island State Park. They use sticks to build their saucer-shaped nest which they line with grass, sod, bark, or other material. Each year they add more sticks to the nest; with nests growing to over 12 feet deep and 6 feet across as generations of osprey use the same nest.
Yellow warbler nests, like this nest from Evangola State Park, are found in small trees and bushes in woodlands near water. Their cup-shaped nests are usually about 10 feet off the ground, but can be as high as 60 feet. The nest is made from grass, nettles, and thin bark strips, which is surrounded by spider webs and plant fibers. If you can look in the nest, you may see the remains of the nest lining of cattail, cottonwood, and cattail seeds and deer hair.
Spotting one of these Baltimore oriole nests can be a treat. Baltimore orioles build their pendant-shaped nest in American elm, maple and basswood trees between 15 and 30 feet off the ground. The nest is made from fine plant fibers such as grass, strips of grapevine bark and as you can see here blue man-made fibers. Baltimore orioles tangle and knot the fibers together to form the nest. The nest is built in three phases, the flexible outer portion is completed first, followed by springy fibers on the inside of the bowl. The springy fibers help the nest to maintain the pendant-shape. Finally, the inside of the nest is lined with downy fibers like dandelions.
One of the most common nests that you may see are not bird nests but squirrel nests. These leaf nests, or dreys, are made from twigs that are woven together into a ball shape in a tree crotch with an entry on the side of the nest.. They are lined with damp leaves and moss. Dreys have a variety of functions from being a winter retreat from winter’s cold to spring and summer homes for young squirrels.
Mice are unexpected nest box visitors. If you open up a nest box during your hike, you might encounter mice, like these deer mice, who use the nest box as a warm place to hide during winter’s cold days.
Make your next hike a nest hunt hike! If you do find a nest, tag us on Instagram, #nystateparks.
Learn more about New York’s winter bird nests:
Boring, Mel. Birds, Nests, and Eggs, Milwaukee, Wis.: Gareth Stevens, 1998.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Dugmore, A. Radclyffe.; Bird homes. The nests, eggs and breeding habits of the land birds breeding in the eastern United States; with hints on the rearing and photographing of young birds, New York, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1902, c1900.
Harrison, Hal H. A Field Guide to Bird Nests in the United States East of the Mississippi River, Boston, Houghton Mifflin; Expanded, Subsequent edition, 1998.
Heinrich, Bernd, Which Bird Made That Nest? Northland Woods, 2009.
Massachusetts Audubon Society, Nests in Winter.
West Virginia Wildlife Magazine, What’s That Clump of Leaves?