Birds’ nests are some of the most intricate forms of natural architecture. And just like straw bale houses, they cause no harm to the planet, they just biodegrade when their purpose is served. Nests is an illustrated book to celebrate the hidden beauty of nature, by Somerset artist Susan Ogilvy, who found a chaffinch nest, when tidying up her garden after a storm. She carried the strange sodden lump from under a fir tree to see it drain into a mossy jewel. Since then, she has painted over 50 bird nests, noting the materials used to make them (twigs, roots, grasses, reeds, leaves, moss, lichen, hair, feathers and cobwebs). She never disturbs nesting birds, only painting nests that have been abandoned after serving their purpose, or displaced by strong winds.
If birds are nesting in your garden, never disturb them and never ‘donate’ things (birds have been making nests for thousands of years, without our help). The problem with donating ‘stuff’ is that it can harm: human hair clippings can entangle and strangle, pet fur may contain flea medication or shampoo, lint from washing machines can go mouldy and choke, and even biodegradable tea bags can have cotton string that again can entangle. Other hazards birds may pick up are pine needles, mulch (cocoa, rubber, pine – all unsafe for pets too) and weed barrier (tack this down safely, to avoid birds pulling it up). Just leave birds to get on with it. Also see posts on how to help our garden birds, and how to stop birds flying into windows.
Sometimes males sit on the eggs, sometimes they scarper after mating (sounds like some men!) Some birds lay nests on the ground, others in high trees. A few use nests built by other birds, and chicks depart at different times (baby eagles stay with mum the longest!)
How do birds know how to make nests? Like migration, it’s all pretty fascinating. Most birds ‘glue’ nests together with their own saliva, some even use silk from spider webs. A few clever feathered friends even add herbs and spices, to keep away bacteria. And some tuck their nests into trees and neste-boxes, to protect the chicks from predators. Nearly all nests are shaped as a cup (for sitting on!) You won’t see nests that much, as most are well-hidden. But we all notice birds with twigs in their mouth, a sure sign that birds are building one.
Choose a Safe Nesting Box
If habitats were as they should be, nesting boxes would not be needed. However, you can help in some cases by providing nest-boxes. But do not do this if predator cats are nearby (keep moggies inside at dawn and dusk, when birds come out to feed). RSPB has info on where to place nesting boxes (and which ones to use for different bird species). Owls appreciate them in quiet undisturbed locations.
Only clean bird boxes when you are sure the chicks have flown, and never use chemicals or flea powder. Just clean with boiling water, then leave to dry out well, before replacing the lid. Many nest-boxes get raided by other creatures looking for eggs, so visit the site above to site well, for the best chance of the chicks hatching.
Many online stores sell elaborate nest-boxes that look like little coloured houses. However, these are more for decorative show, and should not used to nest birds. Paints can be toxic, and elaborate add-ons like windmill sails or parts could harm. RSPB says it’s more important to choose the right box for the right species (different-sized nesting holes) and that the box is sited in the correct position to avoid too much wind or sun, and to protect from predators. A metal ‘roof’ could literally cook a baby bird on a sunny day, and both metal/plastic can create condensation, which causes chicks to become damp and cold. RSPB prefers natural wood with a non-toxic water-based preservative, and no sharp edges, nails, gaps or unnecessary fixtures. It should also have good insulation and be free from perches and bright colours (attracts predators), nor be too shallow, deep or smooth.
How to Help Abandoned Baby Birds
If you find a baby bird on the ground, the parents are usually nearby so watch from afar, and only move in to help, if you think the bird has been abandoned or needs physical help. RSPB has good info on what to do. If near a road, move it a short distance to somewhere safe, for the parents to find it.
If the parents do not return, put the bird in a quiet quiet ventilated box (Wild Bird Rehab says line the bottom with a paper bag or string-free towel/t-shirt). Then call a vet or your local wildlife rescue). If the chick is fully-feathered, it has likely left the nest. Gift your wildlife rescue A Beginner’s Guide to Rearing Baby Birds. They will surely appreciate it, on limited funds.
Nesting is a stunning book about robins, by illustrator Henry Role. This black-and-white picture book highlighted with robin’s egg blue, follows two birds as they build a nest with twigs and grass. Then mother robin lays four beautiful blue eggs, and keeps them warm in the nest, until they hatch. The father robin protects the babies, until they can fly on their own. And despite the perils (snakes and storms), the nest is always their safe place.