Head Outside For a Winter Nest Quest

Winter is a great chance to discover who moved in to the tree next door. Usually the trees are full of leaves, hiding nests from hungry predators. Now that those leaves have fallen, it is time to look closely at who those nests belonged to.

Bird nests are more visible in winter, when the trees are bare of leaves. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

During this time of year, most nests will be empty. A nest’s function is to serve as a home to protect eggs and for the adults to raise babies. Once the babies are old enough to be on their own, the whole family leaves the nest.


Location Is Key


Nests come in all shapes and sizes and can be found in many different places. Different species of birds make nests in a variety of habitats. You may stumble upon a nest on the ground, in a shrub, in a tree, along a building or even in a hole.

An oriole nest. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Orioles usually make their nest hanging over creeks or trails. Bluebirds like to make their nests in holes or cavities. Robins can make nests on your house lights.


Building Materials


Birds from each species makes their nests a certain way. The environment is filled with different building materials. Birds can use mud, sticks, feathers, pine needles, grass, moss and lichen. Some birds use just a few materials, while others make multiple layers with different items in each one.


American goldfinches build their nests with plant fibers on the outside and use milkweed fluff on the inside to keep them nice and warm. They even use spider silk to tie their nests to the branches. Not all birds build their own nests. Owls will take over old nests built by hawks or crows, or find holes made naturally or by woodpeckers.


Just the Right Size


As you can imagine, a big bird is going to need a big nest. The size of the nest can help you pinpoint what kind of bird would have used a nest of that size.

Can you see the bald eagle sitting atop its nest? (Photo via Shutterstock)

Bald eagles add on to their nests year after year. The largest known eagle nest was 20 feet deep and weighed 2 tons — that’s 4,000 pounds! On the other hand, a ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest is about the size of a golf ball. These hummingbirds lay eggs that are about the size of jelly beans.


Not Just for Birds


Have you seen a nest that looks like a ball of leaves? That is a squirrel’s nest.

A squirrel drey. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Squirrel nests are called dreys and are made of twigs, dry leaves and grass. They are dome-shaped with a hole to crawl inside. Some squirrel dreys can be up to 2 feet wide.


Nest Quest


Now that you know more about nests, it is time to go outside! Here are some activities to get you out of the house and searching for the perfect nest.


Around the yard, you can build a nest of your own. Get outside and see what materials you can use. Gather your materials in a bag or box or sort them in an egg carton. Here are some items that may make the perfect nest:

  • Dried grass

  • Small twigs

  • Mud

  • Moss

  • Feathers

  • Plant stems

  • Shredded bark

  • Leaves

Ready for the big challenge? Use all your found materials to make a nest. Try weaving pieces together or making layers. Use soft materials inside the nest to keep it nice and warm.


With your family, take a trip to a forest preserve to look for nests. Grab a pair of binoculars and hit the trails. Check out the branches for any bumps or lumps. Those could be nests!

Make it a competition by keeping score. Who in your family can find the most squirrel nests? Who can find the most stick nests? Don’t forget the tree cavities!


Nest Quest Game


Earn points for each nest you find while hiking. You can play individually or in teams. One person or team can take the right side of the trail, while the other person or team searches the left side. The person or team with the most points wins!


Here’s how to keep score:

  • 1 point for birdhouses

  • 1 point for squirrel dreys

  • 2 points for stick nests

  • 2 points for tree cavities

  • 3 points for oriole hanging-cup nests

  • 5 points for tiny hummingbird nests

  • 50 points for giant bald eagle nests

Want Help With Identification?


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great online resource called NestWatch that can help you figure out what kind of bird may have used the nests you find. Make sure you think about the details of the nests you see. Knowing the nest type, habitat and building materials will help you filter out all the options until you find the most likely suspect.

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