Birds don’t live in nests. They make nests for specific purposes, use them for that purpose, then abandon them. Or, sometimes they don’t abandon them, but rather add on and use them again and again, but in between they don’t live in or on them. Well, sometimes they hang out on them a lot. And not all nests are for putting their eggs in. In fact, sometimes a nest is more of a symbol of quality and overall bird sexiness than it is a place to keep the chicks. As it were. Oh, and sometimes they live in the nests, now that I think about it … It’s complicated.
But there is a book that can help you keep it all straight: Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build by Peter Goodfellow.
Peter Goodfellow is a lifelong birdwatcher who has also written Birds as Builders, Shakespeare’s Birds, and A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Britain and Northern Europe.
I would consider Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build to be equivalent to a coffee-table book because it is full of beautiful pictures, a must-have for your non-field guide bird reference because it will help you understand bird nesting in a new way, useful for knowing what you are looking at in the field, as well as an excellent reference for a school library (what they call these days a “media center”) or nature facility because it is chock full of information.
It is interesting to consider the phylogenetic distribution of nesting behavior. Lots of insects build nests of one kind or another. Many fish nest (I’m thinking mainly of the Cichlids and the Centrarchidae). There are mammals that build nests but other than humans, elaborate nests are rare (though concentrated in certain groups such as Primates). Extinct dinosaurs built nests, and among them, the more elaborate forms seem to be among the same major group that contains the birds. Maybe (just an impression of mine). But nest building and use among birds is much more elaborate and diverse than among dinosaurs as far as we know.
Nesting in birds seems to be mostly built in (genetic) but there can be learning involved. Birds spend relatively little time in nest building, but it can be critical to their life history. Also, consider the fact that nest building, which must be done quickly and efficiently, is carried out with the beak, feet, and to a lesser extent, the body. This means that those features may be under selection for their role in nest building, not just flight or food getting.
Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build is divided into sections. Each section addresses a different dategory of nest, and provides a basic blueprint for that category, followed by a discussion and demonstration of features of each nest type, and example species, with those species being selected from birds across the world. (Certain nest types are non-exist ant or rare in certain regions, of course.) And again, the book is richly and very nicely illustrated.
Th categories of nests include but are not limited to: scrape nests, holes and tunnels, aquatic nests, edomed nests, colonial group nexts, courting nests and bowers, and finally, the one we have all been waiting for, edible nests (Your teenager might eat you out of house and home, but a woodpecker eats its way into house and home!).
Do you have a birder in the family? This is a good present. I’m thinking of giving one to my sister, don’t tell her.
The photograph is a social weaver nest and some other birds, in the Kalahari, South Africa. Photo by Greg Laden.