Beyond Your Backyard: Secrets of the Nest


Kimberly J. Epp


Birds build a variety of nests, which can vary from nothing but the bare ground to complex and intricate nests. They can be a burrow in the ground, a hole in a bank, a hollow in a tree, a ground nest, a cup nest in a tree or even a complex nest with a roof. Some birds use old nests, while others build a new one each Spring. Some birds may have one clutch a season, while others may have up to four.

The largest nests belong to eagles and can measure six feet across and up to eight feet high - as the eagles add new twigs every year. "The Great Nest" is the largest ever recorded eagle platform nest. It was destroyed in 1925 by a storm. It was 12 feet deep and weighed a ton. The tiniest nests are made by the tiniest birds, the hummingbirds. They are only about an inch across and an inch high. They are made of plant downs and fibers attached to the branch with spider silk. The eggs are the size of tic tacs.


Some birds (like Canada Geese) mate for life and look after their young a full season, while songbirds force their young out of the nest as soon as they are fledged. Sometimes the fledgling cannot yet fly, but the mother still feeds them after they jumps or are forced out of the nest.

Sometimes inexperienced birds will lay eggs in "dump nests". Many birds will use the same nest. There is no plan for the eggs to be cared for, so they are easy pickings for predators. The Brown-Headed Cowbird won't assume a good parenting award, either. They can't even be bothered to raise their own young. Instead, they will lay one egg in unsuspecting birds nests, and those birds end up caring for a baby usually two or three times bigger than their own. This can happen up to 40 times in one season!


Great Horned Owls are our earliest nesters and mate as early as January. They use old hawk nests. They win the award for smelliest and most dilapidated nests. Once they become too smelly with dead animals, even with skunk remains, or they start falling apart, the owls will find another nest.

Please remember to keep your pets inside or on leashes when outside as house-cats are responsible for the deaths of millions of songbirds each year. We know that many of our species of songbirds are declining. You can help by providing habitat, nesting boxes, and by NOT using pesticides.

In fact, our grasslands are amongst the most fragmented habitats on earth. We have lost several species, and have several threatened and endangered prairie birds. Let's work together to conserve and protect the species that we still have.


Kimberly Epp is an environmental educator and writer. She is also the President of the Moose Jaw Nature Society. She can be reached at

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