Birds & Birding

Beginner’s Tips For Identifying Backyard Bird Nests

An American robin nest. © Stephen A Wold / Flickr

Around much of North America, you’ll be hearing the chipper chirping of baby birds really soon. Active parents tending to their nestlings create a good opportunity to observe your favorite birds.

But what if you find a nest where you keep missing the parents? Or find a nest in a bush that you know has been unoccupied for a while? Learning tips for nest identification can help. It can also assist in letting you know what species of birds are in your area.

Here are some of my top tips for beginner nest identification that will begin to help you sort out the question: Whose nest is that?

Surveying Egg Island for oyster catcher (bird) nests, Darien, Georgia. © Blake Gordon / TNC

Try to ID the Adults

One great way to identify a nest is simply to try to identify the adults. Grab a pair of binoculars or a high-powered spotting scope to see the birds from a distance. If you’re more of a casual backyard birder, it’s easy to up your skills. Try to identify and note specific details of the bird, known as field marks; great examples of these would be things like the overall size of the bird as well as beak size and head markings.

To begin, we can categorize birds as being either a small, medium, or a large size. For example, we can consider hummingbirds and sparrows small birds, cardinals and northern mockingbirds medium birds, and crows as large birds. Field guides are good at offering the full length of a bird from the tip of its bill to the tip of the tail feathers.

Taking note of a bird’s head and beak size and structure is another good field mark. Note characteristics of head marks like eyebrow stripes (markings that are always over the eye), beak color (both the upper and lower beak as well as size and shape), and throat patches. These features will help you identify the species even further as well as help to narrow down which family the bird belongs to.

A scissor-tailed flycatcher feeding its young. © Cindy Fleenor/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Tips to Identify Bird Nests

If you are not able to identify the adults, or if you find a nest that looks to be unoccupied and from last year, you can still try to identify the user of the nest using some interesting characteristics. Depending on the species of bird that built the nest, different species will make their nests in a certain location, and even use different materials.

Focusing on these characteristics can help you narrow your choices. Then you can consult a good field guide like the Peterson Field Guide to North American Bird Nests. There are a diversity of nests and even with a field guide the task can be daunting. Here are some tips to help focus your identification.

Location: Different species of birds will make their nests in different places. Identifying whether the nest is in a cavity like a birdhouse or a tree, a low shrub, a high tree, or even unusual places like flower pots can help you narrow down what species of bird the nest may belong to. For example, bluebirds are a common species that occupy nest boxes, and species of woodpeckers will construct a cavity and make their homes in hollow trees. Species like cardinals and Brown Thrashers will usually make their nests in low shrubs or bushes. Carolina wrens, a very charismatic species, like make their nests in some very unusual places like car tires and inside garages.

Clutch and Nest Size: Larger species of birds will make large nests. Smaller birds usually make smaller nests; however, it is not abnormal for smaller birds who may lay larger clutches to have a large nest as well.

Certain species of birds are known to lay a certain amount of eggs. Mourning doves usually lay around 2 eggs, while Carolina chickadees can lay anywhere from 3-10 eggs. Also, identifying not only the number of eggs, but the characteristics like their size and color, is another helpful way to identify who the nest belongs too. Do take caution when approaching a nest, and try not to do it often. This can lead to overly stressed parents who are trying to tend to their nest.

Materials: Different species of birds use different materials to build their nests. Noting what a nest is made out of can serve as a great identification tool. Nests can usually be made out of materials like mud, sticks, yarn, lichens, and grass. For example, eastern phoebes are a common bird that uses mud in their nest construction. House sparrows will use grasses, straw, and feathers. Robins usually construct their nests using leaves and mosses.

More identification Tips

Identifying a bird’s nest is not an easy skill, however, there are a few other tips that you can use if you find you are still having trouble or would like to get better at identifying nests. Identifying the breeding range of the bird that you think could be the owner of the nest is one way; identifying the breeding season of the species is another.

Additionally, other reliable resources like museums or nature centers where nests are correctly identified is another great way to see a nest and observe the structure and size of the nest up close.

Nest identification is one of the many skills that avid birders can learn and can also help you in your birding experience by knowing what birds are abundant in your area. But remember, nest identification takes practice! It is also good to remember that it is not always possible to identify every nest you find.

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  1. Important to recognize also that bird and egg-eating animals (e.g. raccoons) follow odors left by people and people can inadvertently lead predators to nests.