Birds’ nests can help birdwatchers identify the types of birds that are nearby. Nests are made of a variety of materials, in different shapes, and found in varying locations.
This article will describe 14 types of bird nests:
- Suspended Cup/Pendant
- Cliffside Ledge
- Floating Or Water-Adjacent
- Sticky Adherent
- No Nest
Read on to learn about these nests, the largest and smallest ones, and the types of birds that utilize them, in greater detail.
14 Types Of Bird Nests
Nest building is part of a species’s ability to successfully produce offspring.
Many birds nest in trees, but there are also quite a few that do not. Females tend to build nests, but there are species-specific variances where the male helps.
Most nests are built to have characteristics that provide shelter, cushioning, and camouflage to protect the eggs and chicks. Often a nest is “glued” together with woven and natural materials, spider webs, mud, or saliva.
In some species, a nest is started to attract mates and then is finished after one has been found.
Cup, cavity, and pendant-styles of nests are most commonly seen in construction for a wide variety of birds. Each type of nest below is described in detail, along with one or more examples of birds that build it.
Keep in mind that many nests will have multiple characteristics of the following types.
1. Cup Nests
These most common nests form a cup-like shape and then are built in various locations depending upon the species.
This cup-like shape contains and camouflages eggs while offering a way for the mother bird to settle on top of them.
Birds that form cup nests include the following:
- American robin (Turdus migratorius)
- Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
- Finches (Fringillidae)
- Sparrows (Passer domesticus)
- Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos)
- Least flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)
Nests are built on forked tree branches, nestled on ledges, or within shrubs or man-made structures. Cup nests can also be built on the ground by some species.
The size of the nest will vary depending upon the size of the species of bird. They are typically made of sticks, barks, grasses, and other plant materials.
The materials are woven together to make a circular-cup shape. Some are glued with mud, spiderwebs, saliva, dung, or cocoon silk.
The interior of the cup is lined with softer materials, such as grass, moss, feather, or fur. Some species make a nest without a mud-liner, or the cup is without twigs and is mostly mud.
Tiniest Cup Nests: Hummingbird
Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) build the tiniest nests.
These flexible 1-inch nests are cleverly hidden on deciduous tree twigs and shrubbery, appearing as bumps or a mound of moss, typically on a forked intersection of branching.
Taking about 7 days to construct, the nest is made from soft, fuzzy, and flexible materials such as dandelion, seed pod fluff, thistle, or twigs. It is held together with spider silk and resin, which also secures it to the tree.
The exterior of the nest is camouflaged with lichen and moss.
A hummingbird typically lays 2 elliptical-shaped, jelly bean-sized eggs. The nest expands to accommodate the growing hatchlings, which leave the nest 18 to 28 days later.
The nests stretch and move as they are used, and while a hummingbird will not reuse it, some may build a nest in the same tree (Selasphorus platycercus) or stack a new nest on top of the old one (Selasphorus calliope), the following year.
2. Cavity Nests
About 85 species in North America make nests using cavities, or holes, found in birdhouses, gaps in structures, tree hollows, and more.
Some birds will excavate to make cavities in soft, decaying wood. Often these excavated holes are tunnel- or chamber-like, extending downward into the tree.
The hole may be used without or without nesting materials.
Some species line the cavity with grasses, sawdust, fur, moss, or shredded bark materials. This lining may form a cup-like nest to further protect the eggs and hatchlings.
Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) use saliva to stick twigs in vertical cavities, such as those found in chimneys.
Examples of other birds that use cavity nests are nuthatches (Sitta), woodpeckers (Picidae), bluebirds (Sialia), chickadees (Paridae), and the titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor).
These birds choose cavities that accommodate their species-specific size.
3. Suspended Cup Or Pendant Nests
Pendant nests are woven sac-like nests which dangle and hang from branches.
Depending upon the species they hang directly from a branch or have an attachment point with a “string” of materials that dangles the nest from the branch.
A suspended nest may be pensile, which is cup-like with an opening at the top. Other styles of pendulous nests may have a closed top like a tunnel with other openings, or access points throughout the structure.
Supportive structures are inside for the eggs and hatchlings. It may even have a “tail” at the bottom as an exit point.
The mother can sit inside to warm the eggs and bend down into the structure to feed hatchlings from above it.
Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula) weave long fibers of grass, horsehair, twine, and other found materials to create a vase-like nest to hang from the outermost ends of branches.
It may be lined with feathers and fibrous plant materials. The nests typically hang a few inches down.
A bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) uses spiderwebs to create a stretchy and strong sac-like nest.
It lines the interior with soft materials such as animal hair and moss. It will hang 3 to 100 feet up from the ground.
Other birds that build pendant nests are caciques (Uropygialis), weaver species (Ploceidae), red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus), and oropendolas (Psarocolius).
4. Platform Nests
Platform nests are large and bulky structures formed on top of larger branches with a flat surface. It may have a slight depression but does not form a cup.
These nests are often constructed primarily with sticks and are used year-to-year with maintenance.
Birds that create platform nests are the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), great blue heron (Ardea herodias), and raptors (Falconiformes and Strigiformes).
Largest Platform Nests: Bald Eagle
The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) builds large nests that may be used from year to year.
An eagle’s territory contains an active nest and inactive nests. Nests that are not used are repaired and maintained.
Eagles’ nests are found in mature or old-growth trees, rocky high points, or cliffs alongside a water source, such as rivers, lakes, or coastlines.
These areas are good sources of food such as marine invertebrates, waterfowl, fish, or mammalian carrion.
Eagles build their long-lasting nests out of large sticks, lined with softer plant materials such as grass, stalks, moss, lichens, or sod.
They build these nests high, ranging 85 to 115 feet up, away from potential disruptions, including human intervention.
It can take up to three months to build a nest with a typical diameter of 4 to 6 feet with a depth of 3 feet, capable of holding 1,000 pounds.
In 1963, the largest bald eagle nest ever discovered was 9 feet and 6 inches wide, 20 feet deep, weighing over 4,400 pounds.
5. Scrape or Ground Nests
This type of nesting is a mere scrape that makes a hollow depression in the ground. Minimal or no nesting materials are used. Some species may line the depression with down, pebbles, grass, or weeds.
These nests are typically found in open habitats without trees in areas with terrestrial tundra or shores (sandy beaches).
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) lay their eggs out in the open on the ground in gravel or dirt depressions. They make several imitation scraped nests as well to confuse any predators.
Their eggs are speckled in color, allowing them to blend in. If a predator comes near, the mother bird will act as if it is injured to lure it away from the nest.
Other birds that create scrape nests are the ostrich (Struthio camelus), American avocet (Recurvirostra americana), plover (Charadriidae), and Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea).
6. Mound Nests
This style of nest starts as a scrape or depression in the ground. It is then formed as an accumulation of materials, such as fallen leaves, rocks, or mud in a bell-shaped, mound structure.
The eggs are buried within the nest for protection and insulation, to camouflage within the nesting materials. The female then sits on top of the mound.
The trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator) and flamingos (Phoenicopterus) make mound nests, which can be over 12 inches in width.
Other birds that make mound nests are the Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata), and horned coot (Fulica cornuta).
7. Dome Nests
This sphere- or dome-shaped style of nest is almost entirely enclosed, located on the ground. They are found near streambanks, or exposed tree root tips, with an entrance typically on the side.
These nests are built and camouflaged with moss and spruce or fir twigs.
Examples of birds that build these nests are the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), wrens (Troglodytidae), ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla), and meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta).
8. Cliffside Ledge Nests
Colonies of birds, such as murres (Uria) and guillemots (Alcidae) will nest on rocky coastal cliffs and ledges, laying pointy-shaped eggs.
This egg shape prevents the eggs from rolling easily, keeping them protected from falls.
Instead of using branches, the bird will place small rocks or use feces to hold or cement the eggs in place.
Other species of birds will use crevices in cliffs, stuffing branches into them to hold their eggs in place. This includes birds such as falcons (Falco), condors (Vultur gryphus), and ravens (Corvus corax).
9. Burrow Or Underground Nest
Burrows are dug for nesting purposes, and some burrow nesting birds may also use a shallow cave found on the sides of cliffs.
The burrow is formed in soft materials such as banks of dirt or dung accumulations. The inner chamber may be unlined or padded with soft organic materials such as feathers and grass.
Often, birds will use abandoned burrows, such as those from rabbits or prairie dogs, for nesting as well.
Examples of birds that create or use nesting burrows are:
- Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica)
- Barbets (Megalaimidae)
- Kiwis (Apteryx australis)
- Kingfishers (Alcedinidae)
10. Floating Or Adjacent-Water Nests
Aquatic, or water birds, nest near or directly on the water.
Ducks (Anatidae) nest in water-adjacent grasslands. They typically scrape a small depression in the ground and then build a nest in it with vegetation.
The female plucks out downy feathers from herself to line the 1-foot in diameter nest and to cover the eggs.
Other species, such as grebes (Podicipedidae), coots (Fulica), and loons (Gavia) nest directly on the water.
These nests are made of floating materials such as reeds, aquatic vegetation, and cattails. They are cemented and anchored with mud so that the eggs do not sink or float away.
11. Sticky Adherent Nests
Some species make nests designed to securely stick to structures.
These nests may be cup- or jug-shaped and made out of mud mixed with saliva or saliva only. These nests are stuck to the walls of structures, in caves, or grottos.
Saliva nests have been studied to see if they are edible for beneficial human consumption.
Examples of birds that build these nests are cliff swallows (Petrochelidon) and swiftlets (Aerodramus fuciphagus).
12. Communal Nest
The sociable weaverbird (Philetairus socius) does not weave nests but builds apartment-like huts.
These structures have a sloping thatched roof made of grass to divert rain and protect them from extreme temperatures. They are typically found in trees or tall objects.
Each generation of sociable wearverbirds builds upon the structure. The birds expand the nest, adding new sections, or apartments with dry grasses on the bottom and sides, lined with soft plant materials.
It also consists of a long, narrow passageway with spiky straw material to keep predators, such as snakes, out. Each chamber has its own entrance.
Over time, this nest can extend 20 feet wide by ten feet tall, weighing up to a ton, with over 100 nesting chambers.
This video shows the massive nest structure of the sociable weaver:
13. Abandoned Or Other Bird’s Nests
Some species of birds are opportunistic nesters, using other birds’ nests, never building their own.
Birds such as the pygmy falcon (Polihierax semitorquatus) and red-headed finches (Amadina erythrocephala) will move into sociable weavers’ nests.
The brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater), is considered a brood parasite. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and then abandon the eggs.
Owls (Strigiformes) do not build their own nests. They may add sticks or lining materials, such as bark, feathers, or leaves to an abandoned nest.
They may also use platforms, cavities, or birdhouses depending upon the size available, opting for locations that are protected from potential predators or human intervention.
14. No Nest
Some birds lay their eggs on a bare spot, never building a nest.
These eggs can be found nestled into forked branches, on a rooftop, or on the ground in the open without a nest structure.
Examples of birds that lay eggs in this way are the White tern (Gygis alba) and emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri).
Nest diversity serves different functions and purposes specific to the species of birds for survival. This includes what they are made out of and where they are placed.
The most common types of nesting styles are cup, cavity, and suspended.
Some species of birds do not build any nests, opting for abandoned nests or burrows, or simply laying eggs out in the open.