Which Bird Made That Nest?

Photos and illustrations by Bernd Heinrich.

The diversity of behavior among bird species is nowhere so dramatic as in their nest construction. Each species builds a specifically precise nest that differs in functional ways from those of almost all others. The variations are as endlessly diverse as the color patterns on a feather. Chimney swifts use their saliva to glue dry twigs onto vertical walls in a chimney cavity or hollow tree. A masked weaver bird’s nest is a finely woven bag with a long, vertical entrance tunnel that is hung from the tip of a thin branch, whereas a sociable weaver builds a communal structure that may weigh a ton. An eagle’s massive structure of branches can support a large man, while a plover merely scratches a few pebbles together on a sandbar. Owls never build anything at all but use others’ nests or nest holes. A murre lays its single egg on a sea ledge, and a fairy tern “nest” is a bare fork on a tree limb.

While some northern woodland birds build their nests on the ground, many nest in trees. One of the pleasures to be had in the winter months is seeing these nests that had been hidden by summer foliage. When leaves drop, nests are revealed; full of snow, they seem to glow against stark tree limbs. The nest owners are no longer around, making positive identification difficult, but many of these nests can be identified if you match them to geographical area, habitat, and other aspects of nest location.

Below are descriptions of some of the more common nests likely to be found and identified in the winter woods. You may not find them all in one winter, but this “field guide” should provide you with the basis for a continuing adventure.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Robin

Robin, Turdus migratorius: A robin’s nest is both universally familiar and frequently misidentified. Nests are built at any height but generally in a protected place, such as inside a barn or where a thick limb forks. The giveaway clue is a mud cup about 3 inches across that in the summer is lined with a thin layer of fine grass. The exterior of the nest is a rough jumble of twigs, leaves, and pieces of bark. Nests exposed to the weather will usually dissolve and collapse by spring; nests under cover can persist for years.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Red-eyed vireo

Red-eyed vireo, Vireo olivaceus: Red-eyed vireos build their nests at any height, but always in a deciduous tree. Their nests can be found in both forest and edge habitat. The nest is always a hanging cup suspended along its edges from a thin, horizontal, forked branch. It is a neat, tidy, compact structure that will have bits of birch bark, and usually also wasp paper, decorating the outside. The inside cup diameter of a vireo nest is 2 inches.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Baltimore oriole

Baltimore oriole, Icterus galbula: Oriole nests are baglike nests woven out of fibers, most commonly those stripped from old, decaying milkweed plants. Nests are almost always high in deciduous trees and at the tips of branches, not in deep forest.

Chectnut-sided warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica: Chestnut-sided warblers nest in open, edge habitat and also close to the ground, in small shrubs and bushes. This nest, with its very light and flimsy appearance, is made almost entirely of very fine grasses.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum: Cedar waxwings nest in small evergreens or deciduous trees in edge habitat. The nest cup is untidy on the outside like a robin’s and of similar size, but it lacks the mud cup and is typically garnished on the outside with lichens and/or moss.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image American goldfinch

American goldfinch, Carduelis tristis: American goldfinches make solid and tidy cup nests out of plant fibers and line them with thistle down. Nests are usually found out on a branch of a deciduous tree in fairly open habitat, such as a bog, edge of field, or suburban area. The nest is built with its base on the branch, not suspended like that of the vireo. Droppings are a dead giveaway (although they may be washed off by late winter), since goldfinches are the only local open-nesting songbird that allows feces to accumulate on the nest edge.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Least flycatcher

Least flycatcher, Empidonax minimus: A narrow (1.5 inches across) but deep nest cup placed into a thick, vertical fork so as to be almost hidden by it. Nests are found in deep edge habitat.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Red-winged black bir

Red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus: Red-winged blackbird nests could be confused with catbird nests, except that they’re found in relatively open marshland. Nests are often built into a tuft of grass, or in a bush, or in cattails within a foot of the ground or water. Common grackles may nest in the same sites (but also in many others). Grackle nests can be distinguished from those of red-winged blackbirds by their larger (inside diameter about 3.5 inches), more compacted nest cup.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Scarlet tanager

Scarlet tanager, Piranga olivacea: Unlike the other nests in this story, scarlet tanager nests are composed almost entirely of twigs. Nests have an interior nest cup 3 inches across and feature a thin lining of rootlets. They are almost see-through in the winter. They can be distinguished from the similar-looking nest of the rose-breasted grosbeak by their location: tanagers nest high in forest trees, whereas grosbeaks tend to nest in young bushy trees. Mourning dove nests have a similarly flimsy structure but no visible cup. Most mourning dove nests are blown away before winter arrives.

Which Bird Made That Nest? Image Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis: Chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers nest in holes in trees, and the nests of these species can be differentiated, to some extent, by the size of the hole. A pileated woodpecker nest hole is 4 inches in diameter, a hairy woodpecker’s is 2 inches, a sapsucker’s is 1.5 inches, a chickadee’s is 1 inch (in those cases where it makes its own nest hole), and a red-breasted nuthatch’s, like the one pictured here, is also 1 inch. The holes are almost perfectly round.

Red-breasted nuthatches build substantial nests of moss, down, and fibers in their nest cavities, whereas woodpeckers never put in any nest material. When abandoned, tree-hole nests can be recycled by any of a variety of birds or by other tenants. Note the diagnostic globs of pitch brought to the nest to plaster at and below the entrance to the hole; this pitch probably functions to restrict predator access. The tree in this photograph is a dead red maple.

Winter wren, Troglodytes troglodytes: All wren nests are domed, with a small entrance hole at the side. Those of the winter wren are most commonly garnished on the outside with green moss and small spruce or fir twigs. Although the wrens may place their nest under a stream bank, in hanging moss close to the ground, or in a small, densely branched tree, they are most commonly found in root tip-ups of wind-blown trees.

Ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris: Ruby-throated hummingbirds garnish their walnut-sized nests with lichens to “mimic” bumps on limbs. Nests are lined with soft white plant down. The only nest that is similar in habitat, placement, and appearance, though it is substantially larger, is that of the wood peewee.

Bernd Heinrich is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. His book Nesting Season is scheduled for publication in March 2010.

Photo Gallery

  1. Barry
    Mar 19, 2010

    This is a very well thought-out article.  I’m doing some research on birds for a Cub Scout project. I found some info in here that will help as I work up an outdoor adventure for the boys!  :-)

    Thanks, and good luck with your book.

  2. Retha Tallent
    Apr 04, 2012

    When cleaning out my Purple Martin gourds I found a straw nest that was completely round with an opening in one side.  What bird makes a nest like this?

  3. David Peterson
    Jul 07, 2012

    I found a nest like a robin’s, however it was mud lined. What bird makes such a nest?

  4. Tina
    Jul 19, 2012

    I saw a couple of huge nests here in upstate NY and would love to know what kind of bird built them. They were on top of a powerline and they look to be about 3 feet wide. One of the nests had babies in it, that were not really babies at all, cause they were huge!!! The bird looks to be mostly black, or dark in color, with a white breast. Can anyone help me identify these amazing birds???

  5. Meghan Oliver
    Jul 24, 2012

    Hi Tina,

    I believe you saw an osprey’s nest. Osprey often nest on powerline platforms. They are large, fish-eating raptors, so their nests are usually not too far from water (sometimes they build their large nests on piers or bridges in/over water)—and they have large babies! See this site for more information on osprey, and photos of their powerline nesting sites: http://www.ospreynest.info/index.php?pagecontent=Power+line+nests&user=9&adcode=134

    Thanks for writing!

  6. Mary Conrad
    Dec 03, 2012

    Yesterday in Lindsborg, KS I saw a shallow-cupped nest.  The whole nest was on the flattish side.  It was made entirely of cedar bark and was underneath a large red cedar.  Any ideas on the bird who made that nest?

  7. Mary Ann Woodcock
    Apr 06, 2013

    We have lived in our house for 10 years. This year (in April) we noticed a very large nest about half way up a tall pine tree. It appears to be about three feet across, and made out of sticks. We don’t have any large body of water in the immediate area. We do feed birds, but the biggest one we’ve seen is an occasional crow. We do live out of town, in a semi-rural setting. What type of bird would build such a large nest? Someone suggested it may be a squirrel’s nest, but it is not made of leaves.

  8. Jill
    May 15, 2013

    I have two small birds that came last year and are back this year. I have a hanging bird house on my porch and they took up in it last year. They are small and really make a loud sound, like they are calling or talking to each other. They make their out of sticks. Any idea what kind of bird this is

  9. Terry Le Boeuf
    Jun 01, 2013

    Do blackbirds nest in cedar trees?

  10. Evelyn
    Jun 06, 2013

    My birdhouse is filled with small dead twigs about 4” to 6” long.  Does anyone know who would have put them in?  A chickadee nested in it first and most of her nest was taken out and all these sticks put in.?????????

  11. Cheryl
    Jan 07, 2014

    I’ve noticed a small triangle/beehive looking bird nest in several places around DC.  The nest is gray in color, appears to be made of paper/mud about the size of a melon with a small opening on the side.  It hangs from a single branch with the pointy end toward the ground.  Any ideals?  I thought it was a wasp nest or beehive, but there are so many of them and I haven’t seen any insects flying around.

  12. Jeanie SImon
    May 11, 2014

    My birdhouse is filled with small dead twigs about 4” to 6” long.  Does anyone know who would have put them in?  We see swallows around the area,  these birdhouses are specific for blue birds.

  13. Andrea
    May 28, 2014

    Evelyn, that sounds like a house sparrow nest. These non-native invasives are vicious predators that kill native birds like bluebirds. They pecked a phoebe to death in one of my boxes. They will sometimes create dummy nests of sticks to keep other birds from using nest boxes that they themselves are not using.

  14. Jim Moreland
    Jul 17, 2014

    In our yard beneath a small maple I found a small nest (less than 4” across, shallow, less than 2” from top to bottom) made entirely of thistle down.  What made this nest?

  15. Jeanette
    Aug 06, 2014

    I found a fairly good sized nest under the hood of my propane tank with 5 blue eggs in it today.  The nest is made of straw and feathers.  Do you have any idea what it might be?

  16. Judith Harding
    Aug 18, 2014

    A nest the size of a regular orange with the hole the size of nickel in the side. There is a bird flying in and out but too small to see.  The pictures here are too big . This nest is all enclosed.  Thank you

    Judith Harding.

  17. Geeta Balan
    Dec 17, 2014

    I saw a few nests on a mango tree in Bhopal India.The leaves of a branch were almost moulded together with cobwebs & they were big & oblong.Which birds nest could that be?

  18. Amanda Cole
    Apr 11, 2015

    The 3 foot nest is probably Osprey.  I’ve seen them nesting in Colorado. My question is what bird lays white speckled eggs smaller than a dime in an enclosed nest shaped like a football with no hole.  I found one dropped at a park with 5 eggs.

  19. Larry
    May 06, 2015

    Anyone know what bird uses cedar bark to build a nest other then the Golden-cheeked warbler?  I found an old bird nest in my yard made of cedar bark.

  20. Amy Salisbury
    Jun 21, 2015

    I don’t know a lot about birds, but I found a lovely straw cup shaped nest in a thorny bush 4 or 5 feet up. It had 5 blue speckled/mottled eggs in it. I was pruning the bush back, and I got to one or two feet from the nest before I saw it. A bird nearby had been squawking away, and stopped as soon as I left. Am I a home wrecker? Will the mama bird go back?

  21. Vishist Dixit
    Jul 03, 2015

    This is a very informative article. Makes it simpler to find out the bird from its nest. Check out these amazing bird nests made in the strangest places.

  22. Charlene
    Jul 17, 2015

    Is there a bird other than a Robin that makes a rounded nest with blue eggs? A bird nearby resembled a lark.

  23. Jean
    Aug 05, 2015

    I put pieces of yarn out last spring, and was not sure if it had been used in any bird nests, but this spring when pruning my gardenia shrub, I found a nest made of coir strands (probably pulled out from my hanging baskets), with pieces of the yarn interwoven, and some of it actually “glued” on. What species of bird builds a nest like this?

  24. Kerry
    Sep 07, 2015

    We have a bird house that something has made a mud nest inside with only a small passage to get in or out unless it can sweeze in under the bird house eves.  Any ideas what this is?

  25. Robert Davis
    May 24, 2016

    I see a mud nest about six inches high near a creek water flow area near a grass field in country type setting. Is that a red winged blackbird nest or robin or walking type bird nest? Or is it for snakes because it is dug in ground about 1 1/2 inches wide?

  26. Beth Arsenault
    Jul 15, 2016

    My friend found a neatly made nest of fine roots in a blue bird box. It is not a bluebird nest, nor a chickadee or titmouse. Any ideas who would make a nest of roots in a bird box?

  27. Kay Hood
    Jan 05, 2017

    January 2017, I have a nest about the size of a small soccer ball, but the shape of a hot air balloon, high in a tree at the at the tip end of a thin branch. Our home is on a lake in a forested area. The outside seems somewhat smooth, no sticks poking out. I have not seen a bird near it yet.

  28. Jayne Schmidt
    May 19, 2017

    Kerri that birdhouse with the mud and small opening is probably bees or wasps. I had one two years ago on my porch and I couldn’t paint my porch because they kept chasing me away. So be careful. They got me more than once.

  29. Joe Hardy
    Jun 11, 2017

    This nest was beautifully constructed in the middle of a hanging flower arrangement outside of our porch.  The nest is tight.  I swear if it fell in a pond it would float for days.  The eggs (6) are a half inch in length, colour is light to medium shade of blue with a few tiny black spots on the ends.  Nobody has seen the mother yet though she scared me one night after dark when I went to water the plant. This was before I knew the nest was there.  Anyway the chicks are beginning to hatch this morning I’d like to know what species of bird we are raising.

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