do birds build nests in the fall

Phoebe nest – Note the heavy use of moss in the nest construction, a feature of phoebe nests.

Many people find it a bit sad to see the leaves fall after the glorious display our trees put on in September and October. However one of the benefits of the landscape’s new leaflessness is that lots of birds’ nests have now been revealed. In this column I will provide a brief description of the nests of a number of birds that are likely familiar to many readers. Most of the birds I’ve described are tree nesters, but I added a couple of others because they are familiar to many people and they also help illustrate the interesting range of nesting sites that birds use.

American Robin nests are typically found in the lower half of a tree, often on a horizontal branch hidden by a layer of dense leaves. Robins also nest in gutters, eaves, on outdoor light fixtures, and other structures. Female robins choose the nest sites and build the nest from the inside out, pressing dead grass and twigs and other materials into a cup shape. Once the cup is formed, she reinforces the nest using soft mud to make a heavy, sturdy nest and lines it with fine dry grass.

Black-capped Chickadees typically excavate a cavity in a site usually selected by the female. She then builds the cup-shaped nest in the chamber using moss and other coarse material for the base and lines it with softer material such as rabbit fur. Nests are usually between 5 and 20 feet high. They tend to excavate in old standing dead trees or rotten branches, often selecting alder or birch. Nest boxes, small natural cavities or abandoned Downy Woodpecker cavities can be used as well.

American Crows. Both members of a breeding pair of crows help build the nest. Interestingly, young birds from the previous year sometimes help as well. The nest is made largely of medium-sized twigs with an inner cup lined with pine needles, weeds, soft bark, or animal hair. Nest size is quite variable, but typically ranges from 6-19 inches across. Crows typically hide their nests in a crotch near the trunk of a tree or on a horizontal branch, generally towards the top third or quarter of the tree. They prefer to nest in evergreens, but will nest in deciduous trees when evergreens are less available.

Eastern Phoebe. As I write this, I am looking through one of the windows in our house at a phoebe’s nest from last summer located on a horizontal beam under our deck. This is a typical location for a phoebe’s nest – built in niches or under overhangs, where the young will be protected from the elements and fairly safe from predators. Nests are typically less than 15 feet from the ground and built close to the roof of the alcove they have chosen. Only the female builds the nest, often while the male accompanies her – presumably waiting for instructions. She constructs the 5-inch-across nest from mud, moss, and leaves mixed with grass stems and animal hair. Unlike most birds, nests are often reused in subsequent years. The nest at our house was used to raise 2 broods of babies over the summer for a total of 10 new phoebes added to the population.

Baltimore Orioles build remarkable, sock-like hanging nests, woven together from slender fibers. Construction materials for the 3 to 4 inch deep nest can include grass, strips of grapevine bark, wool and horsehair, as well as artificial fibers such as cellophane, twine, or fishing line. The female chooses the location and weaves the nest, anchoring it high in a tree, often an elm but increasingly in other tall trees like maples or poplars. The distinctive nest usually hangs below a branch.

Blue Jays build an open cup nest of twigs, grass, and sometimes mud, lined with rootlets. Their nests are typically in the crotch or thick outer branches of a deciduous or coniferous tree, usually 10-25 feet above the ground. Male and female both gather materials and build the nest, but on average the male does more gathering and the female more building. Twigs used in the outer part of a nest are usually taken from live trees, and birds often struggle to break them off. Birds may fly great distances to obtain rootlets from newly fallen trees or human construction sites.

Red-winged Blackbirds typically nest in marshes. Females choose the site and build the nest near the ground (or water surface in a marsh), in dense, grass-like vegetation such as cattails, bulrushes, and sedges. Females wind stringy plant material around several close, upright stems and weave in a platform of coarse, wet vegetation. Around and over this she adds more wet leaves and decayed wood, plastering the inside with mud to make a cup. Finally, she lines the cup with fine, dry grasses. When finished the nest is 4 to 7 inches across and 3 to 7 inches deep.

American Goldfinches build an open cup nest from rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. Male and female goldfinches jointly choose a suitable nest site but the female builds the nest, usually in a shrub or sapling in a fairly open setting. The nest is often built high in a shrub, where two or three vertical branches join; usually shaded by clusters of leaves from above. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and lines the nest with the fluffy material from the seed heads of plants like thistles and milkweeds. The finished nest is about 3 inches across on the outside and 2-4.5 inches high.

Photo: Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest. The nest opening is about the size of a penny Photo taken by Steven Kapusta, Ontario Hummingbird Project

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Females build their open cup nests on a slender, often descending branch, usually of deciduous trees like oak, ironwood, birch, poplar or sometimes pine. About the size of a 1/3 cup measuring cup, it’s made of thistle or dandelion down held together with strands of spider silk and sometimes pine resin. The female chooses the location and does all the nest construction. She decorates (camouflages?) the exterior with bits of lichen and moss. The nest takes 6-10 days to finish and measures about 2 inches across and 1 inch deep.

This is only a very brief introduction to the nest-building habits and habitats of a few of our local breeding birds. However, I hope it provides readers with a taste of the wide range of nesting sites and materials used, and a few clues to help identify any nests that people might encounter now that the leaves are gone and before the winter weather tears apart the nests left behind. In a future column, I’d like to share some information on a totally different nesting strategy – nesting on the ground – and some readers may be surprised to learn about a few of our local birds that use this strategy.

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Multiple Broods Extend the Nesting Season

For example, from May through August, American Robins can produce three or four broods. From the time the eggs are laid to the time the babies hatch, each brood can take up to one month. Moreover, Eastern Bluebirds can raise two to three broods every season, which take five to six weeks to raise. Moreover, Northern Cardinals raise two to three broods every season; it takes them three to four weeks from the time the eggs are laid until the young depart the nest.

do birds build nests in the fall

American Goldfinches are our latest nesters. Not until late June or early July, and occasionally even into August, do they even start to nest. In contrast to many other nesting bird species, goldfinches only feed seeds to their young instead of insects. Waiting until later in the season allows goldfinches to benefit from full-seed producing wildflowers. Additionally, they enjoy using the fluffy seeds of thistle and milkweed to construct their nests. They can be sure they will have access to a good supply of food and nesting materials if they wait until later in the season. By hanging a Best Nest Builder fiber bundle—available at any of our All Seasons Wild Bird Stores locations—you can give goldfinches something to nest with.

American Crows. A breeding pair of crows contributes to the nest’s construction. Remarkably, young birds from the previous year can occasionally assist as well. The majority of the twigs in the nest are medium in size, and the inside cup is lined with soft bark, weeds, pine needles, or animal hair. Although nest sizes vary greatly, they usually measure between 6 and 19 inches across. Usually located in the upper third or quarter of a tree, crows conceal their nests in crotches close to the trunk or on horizontal branches. Although they prefer to nest in evergreens, when evergreens are scarce, they will also nest in deciduous trees.

American Robin nests are usually located in the base of trees, frequently on a horizontal branch that is obscured by a thick covering of leaves. Additionally, robins build their nests in eaves, gutters, outdoor light fixtures, and other structures. When constructing a nest, female robins select the locations and work from the inside out, shaping dead grass, twigs, and other materials into the shape of a cup. After the cup is created, she lines it with fine dry grass and uses soft mud to reinforce the nest to create a heavy, sturdy nest.

Red-winged Blackbirds typically nest in marshes. Females select the location and construct the nest in dense, grass-like vegetation like sedges, cattails, and bulrushes close to the ground (or the water’s edge in a marsh). Females weave a platform of coarse, moist vegetation and wind stringy plant material around several close, upright stems. She builds more damp leaves and rotting wood all around it and plasters the inside with mud to create a cup. Finally, she lines the cup with fine, dry grasses. The completed nest measures 4 to 7 inches in diameter and 3 to 7 inches in depth.

Eastern Phoebe. As I type this, I am staring through one of our windows at a phoebe’s nest from the previous summer that is perched on a horizontal beam beneath our deck. This is where phoebes typically build their nests—under overhangs or in niches, where the young will be mostly safe from predators and protected from the weather. Nests are usually constructed near the roof of the alcove they have selected, less than 15 feet above the ground. Only the female constructs the nest; frequently, the male follows her, probably in anticipation of orders. She builds the five-inch-wide nest out of mud, moss, and leaves combined with animal hair and grass stems. Unlike most birds, nests are often reused in subsequent years. Over the summer, two broods of babies were raised in the nest at our house, adding ten new phoebes to the population.

With grass, twigs, and occasionally mud, blue jays construct an open cup nest that is lined with rootlets. Usually located 10 to 25 feet above the ground, their nests are found in the crotch or thick outer branches of deciduous or coniferous trees. Both the male and female construct the nest and gather materials, but generally the male constructs more and the female gathers more. Birds frequently struggle to break off the twigs from live trees that are used for the exterior of a nest. When seeking rootlets from recently fallen trees or human construction sites, birds are able to travel great distances.


What month do birds build nests?

For most of us in North America, April is the month where birds build nests that will last all season. We’ve observed and removed hundreds of birds and nests over the years.

Do birds build nests for winter?

The only time of the year when birds sleep in nests is when they are incubating eggs or keeping their young warm. During the rest of the year, birds select a roosting spot. Often they use the same roost night after night. Songbirds find a protected place to perch, sheltered from rain and safe from nighttime predators.

Can birds have babies in the fall?

Some get a head start on parenthood by laying eggs before the arrival of spring—sometimes as early as fall. These early nesters might be motivated by a variety of reasons. In some cases, they may be able to take advantage of food sources and environmental factors during colder months.

Do birds build new nest every year?

Most birds use the nests only once and will start fresh in the spring with a new nest. However, if you’re eager to pull that empty nest off your porch light, just be mindful of a minor exception to the “one-and-done” rule. Some species, such as the American Robin, produce two or three sets of chicks in the same season.