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The craft and beauty of the birds’ nest

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 20 December 2012

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This edited article about birds’ nests originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 800 published on 14th May 1977.

Robins, picture, image, illustration

Robins are notorious for nesting in unusual places

Birds’ nests vary considerably, often to an amazing degree, in their shape, size and intricacy of construction. All these things, are, of course, governed to some degree as to where they are situated.

A nest is a shelter constructed by an animal for the purpose of rearing its young. The nesting instinct is common to a large part of the mammal world, but nest building has attained its highest development among the birds as a class.

Generally, the most elaborate nests are made by those species whose young are most helpless in the earlier stages of life. Where, as in game birds, the young are still able to run about and pick up food soon after being hatched, the nest is on the ground. Birds such as the finches, which may have many enemies, take the most pains to conceal their young, either by placing them in an inaccessible place, or by covering the outside with lichens, or other material to match its surroundings.

It is still difficult though to find a truly common factor when it comes to birds’ nests. Some make no nests at all, laying their eggs on bare ground or on a rock ledge. Others display a remarkable skill, weaving the most elaborate nests from grasses, or sewing large leaves together, using the beak as a needle, and bits of climbing plants as threads. Still others show great ingenuity in improvising nests under the most difficult circumstances.

In some of the barren lands of New Mexico, where no trees or shrubs grow, crows have taken to collecting bits of wire, etc., left by telephone linesmen, and constructing their nests at the top of telegraph poles with these, much to the annoyance of repair men when this results in a short circuit.

A few years ago a house sparrow in Regent’s Park was found to have made a nest entirely from matches and bits of matchboxes it had picked up in the park.

Then there was the case of an Essex housewife who left a £1 in an empty milk bottle to pay the milkman. The next day the note had gone, but the milkman disclaimed all knowledge of it. This led to some embarrassment on both sides until some time later, when the housewife happened to look into a blackbird’s nest in her garden, where she found the note lining the nest and held in place with moss and grass.

Robins are notorious for nesting in unusual places. Old kettles are often used and frequently nests have been found in the saddle bag of a bicycle left in the garden shed.

Perhaps the champion nest builders amongst British birds is the long-tailed tit, which usually selects gorse or thorn bush and builds a domed oval nest with an entrance hole near the top. It is woven from cobwebs and moss and decorated with lichens on the outside. Inside it is lined with small, soft feathers. A patient naturalist once counted over 2,000 of those in one nest.

A Scottish duck called a Goosander, habitually nests, strange though it may seem, in a hole in a tree. When the ducklings are ready to leave the nest they are helped down by the mother duck, sometimes being held in her bill, sometimes against her breast.

If they happen to fall out of the nest they are so light and so well covered with down that they usually come to no harm.

The female African Hornbill also nests in a hole in a tree, but in this case her mate imprisons her by blocking the entrance hole with a plaster of mud, leaving only a small hole though which he feeds her and her young for a period of several weeks.

Sparrows also have chosen some very strange places, including the throat of a stone lion, street lamps, letter boxes, a railway station clock and disused pumps. They are also likely to use anything that comes to hand to feather their nests. A sparrow’s nest near a watch factory in Switzerland was found to be made entirely of watch springs.

Another bird whose nesting habits are of some interest is the swift, who seems to like to take up its abode near human beings. Once an inhabitant of mountains where it used to nest in the cleft of rocks, it now breeds in high buildings, steeples, crevices of ruined walls, under roofs. Its nest is a flat dish made of straw, feathers, wool, rags, etc., untidily cemented together and covered with a sticky saliva.

When looking at the nesting habits of birds, one should not, of course, forget the famous Bower Bird of New Guinea, which derives its name from its remarkable habit of constructing runs, or bowers, during the breeding season. The finest bowers in nearly all cases, are situated on the sunny side of a lying log, the ground being strewn with moss, flowers, small bones and snail-shells, which is reached by going through a tunnel, formed with stiff grass and twigs. This temporary nest is something in the nature of a playground. The eggs, however, when they arrive, are laid in a nest of twigs, some distance away from the bower.

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