Bird’s Nests: To Give or Not to Give Materials?

March and April are a wonderful time for birdwatchers! The birds return from the south, singing to find a mate, flitting from one side of their territory to the other to defend it and, eventually, find building materials for their bird’s nest.

I know that many of you gardeners love these colorful birds. You’ve got a feeder, maybe even a bird bath, and you want to do the right thing by offering them all sorts of nesting materials: hair, animal fur, dryer foam, etc.

But is this a good thing?

I know you’re nature lovers, so I’m sure you don’t want to hurt them, but the reality is that birds generally do much better… without us!

Photo: Aitor Larumbe Zabala

Danger in the Nest

I often hear that “hair can wrap around a bird’s legs” and I must admit I was skeptical. Have you ever seen this? There are rescue videos of moose getting their antlers stuck in a fence, but a crow with a hair around its leg? No… So, is it true or not?

In fact, it seems that the real danger posed by fibers is to the chicks in the nest. A hair wrapped around the neck, wing or leg is a mortal danger for young birds.

Look how tiny these American Robin chicks are! The nest is made of dried blades of grass: to give you an idea, they’re about the size of a knuckle. Look at the tip of your index finger: it’s really not that big! It doesn’t take much to wrap around a wing and prevent it from developing. Photo: Mohan Nannapaneni

Similarly, with their bare, fragile skin, animal hair, wool clippings and dryer foam are a danger. Cleaners, dyes and other products can be toxic, and unnatural fibers can be irritating, dangerous if ingested, and even polluting for the environment! Think of those synthetic dishcloths full of Windex that you’ve soaked in laundry soap and fabric softener: residues of these end up in the dryer foam! To sum up: microplastic, irritating and potentially toxic products, and the risk of jamming a fragile joint.

Sounds alarmist, I know, but really, why risk anything when birds are perfectly capable of nesting on their own?

Photo: Frank Cone

“Tested and Approved” Materials

You know, birds, they were here before us. Yes, our presence can disrupt their way of life, but it’s really best to let them adapt to disturbances on their own, which they do very well.

I know, you like to feed the birds, and that’s okay! But you should know that what you feed them is usually only a tiny fraction of their diet, and that’s just fine! Imagine what would happen if you moved house: all the birds in the area would starve!

In the case of bird nests, it’s the same thing: they find what they need on their own, and what you give them is just a little extra: it’s by no means decisive for their survival. Unless, of course, you give them materials that harm them!

What to Offer?

So if you REALLY want to give your little birds an IKEA nest, offer them the materials that come from nature and that are usually used in their nests: twigs, dry grass, milkweed down, leaf stems, mud, moss, etc.

Soie d’asclépiade. Photo: Bojan Popovic

Yes, but Audrey, you’re forgetting the animal hair!

I know, I know, some birds have been observed taking wool directly from sheep, and many use their own feathers to make a cozy nest. But your dog is full of shampoo, tick repellent, medication and so on. So no, your pet isn’t as “contaminated” as dryer lather, but it’s still an unnatural coat.

Photo: Paul Gierszewski

The bird’s nest is often built from sturdy materials to make the shape, such as branches and straw, and the interior is lined with more delicate, comfortable and insulating silks, mosses or grasses. Looking for the perfect spring break activity? Your children’s little fingers will find the most interesting materials on the ground! (Provided it’s not covered in snow, of course!)

Photo: Karolina Grabowska

The General Store

How can you offer your birds these finds? First of all, if you leave them on the ground, birds aren’t the only ones who make a cozy nest! Shrews, mice, squirrels and even raccoons, skunks and insects can make use of them. It’s up to you whether you supply the whole neighborhood or not!

If your goal is really birds, place your supplies on a table, in a feeder or in the boughs of tree branches. This won’t stop the most reckless of squirrels, but it’ll be a little less inviting than directly on the ground!

Another important point to consider is the environment in which you place your materials. Ever heard of predation at the feeder? Well, the same rules apply: if you leave your treasure near a wall or hedge, the buffet quickly becomes a death trap. Indeed, many birds of prey are predators of smaller birds. Make sure you set up your buffet in an open area where you can retreat from all sides.

You’ll then be able to observe the birds, “help” them build their nests, and above all, do so in a way that’s safe for them. Happy birding!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

4 comments on “Bird’s Nests: To Give or Not to Give Materials?

  1. They mention that while there are rescue videos showing animals like moose getting their antlers stuck in a fence, they have not come across similar videos involving birds and hair entanglement.

  2. heathergrammie

    I really enjoyed your article. Thank you! The hair thing is real. I remember trying to figure out why one of my babies was crying and eventually tracked it down to a hair wound around one of the poor little guy’s toes. After that I checked all the toes of his onesies for stray hairs before putting them on. I’d hate to think of any bird getting tangled like that.

  3. Christine Lemieux

    Good information! Also, the photos are spectacular!

  4. M Williams

    Great article, Audrey! Thank you for sharing the biologist’s perspective. IKEA-type nests not necessary!

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