How to identify a bird species from its nest? (Birders how-to series #1)

*Pssst, there is a Google drive for all the video clips of wildlife in my blogposts. You can access it here: ;D

It’s the breeding season. A warm spring morning with brisk winds. You pace along the nature park trails, clenching at your binoculars and DSLRs, waiting for the sight of a rare bird. You know there is an element of risk in your adventure today: mama birds tend to be more protective of their eggs and baby hatchlings at this time, and are ready to ward off any un-welcomed guests using whatever means necessary.

Mysterious Bird Nest

Suddenly, something bulky pops up in your field of vision, mounted using twigs, branches and leaves, about 40-50 cm in width, rested on top of a forked branch. It’s a nest, in active use! Heart pounding with excitement, you scan around for the sight of mama bird. No sight of fleeting feathers and wings. You stretch your neck, binos pressed hard on your eyeballs. No eggs or hatchlings visible. Which bird species does this nest belong to?

This is a likely scenario a birder would encounter during breeding times. As a birding amateur, I dug into some research, and hope that this compilation of tips and tricks would help you out on the hanging branch there.

First things first

It is helpful to figure out whether the nest is in active use or not. If so, wait from a safe distance and watch out for any bird that approach the nest to feed its starving youngsters.

Types of bird nests: location, construction, materials

Birds differ in their preferences for nesting location. Residential species try as much as possible to hold on to their original sweet home, while migratory species have to actively search and fight for their rental spaces. All birds share one universal principle for their dream home: a place with shelter from environmental fluctuations and predation, and in close proximity to food.

The shapes of nests adapt highly to surrounding structural support, with an attempt to camouflage into their immediate landscape. Materials used are wide-ranging, usually found and collected nearby.

Different constructs of bird nests. (a) Cup (b) Sphere (c) Sphere with an entering tunnel (d) Disc (e) Bed (f) Shallow indentation (g) High mount (h) Cave

Shorebirds such as terns, willets and plovers scrape a shallow indentation or mount hay on the beach sand to create nests (Construct e or f). The chicks can be easily threatened due to human activities near the beachside.

A Malaysian Plover newborn, an uncommon residential shorebird in Singapore.

Red-necked stint (left) with juvenile Lesser sand-plover (right) in Sungei Buloh.

Barn swallows build their nests on manmade vertical walls and underneath roofs out of mud pellets. The inner space is made warm and comfy for the chicks with grass, hair and feathers. The edible nests made from saliva of swiftlets are highly prized for their purported medicinal values in China.

Barn swallows make lovely guests in households worldwide.

Edible swiftlet nest in Chinese cuisine

Bird-nests in Singapore

To adapt to their long, large, heavy bills, collared kingfishers build cave-shaped nests (construct h). They often dig their holes in places with soft materials, such as deserted termite nests, and the root areas of plants and ferns. Bird nest ferns, literally, are a go-to haven for kingfishers during nesting season.

A kingfisher nursing its young under a birdnest fern.

Nests of black-naped orioles, one of the most common birds in Singapore, fulfil our imagination of an exquisite bird nest: constructed out of intertwined bark, twigs, grass and roots, hung on the forks of tree branches. They are notoriously aggressive during breeding season and are known to mob other birds’ nests.

White-bellied sea eagle’s nest is a gigantic superbowl (construct a), built out of twigs and branches, reused year after year.

White-bellied sea eagle spotted in Woodlands, October 2018.

So much about bird nests! Hope this post would give you some idea on how to identify birds from the location, construction and materials of their nests!

Who is the owner of the mysterious nest, you ask? That belongs to a squirrel, not a bird! Gotcha! 😀

Some resources

North America: Nestwatch.

Singapore: Singapore Bird Group.

NLB Singapore Infopedia.

More readings

bird nest structure and evolution phylogeny

Do tune in for “Philo-byte Friday” and “Biotrivia Monday” (wink) ~


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