do birds need nesting materials in winter

The impressive construction of a birds nest is quite a feat of nature, but as awe-inspiring as a nest may be, many birds are not that discerning when it comes to nest-building material.

Twigs, sticks, dried grass and leaves are all common nest-building materials, but some birds will use pretty much anything they can find for their construction efforts, according to the National Audubon Society. And they arent above taking the easy way out and using materials left out for them rather than searching for them on their own.

The fact that birds will take what is readily available to them poses the question of whether it is OK to leave materials out with the intent that the birds will use them to build nests. Most birding groups, including the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, say its OK to provide nesting materials, so long as they are the right type.

Materials that are safe to leave out for birds include those that they would seek out on their own to use in nest construction. These include obvious things like twigs, small sticks, leaves and small pieces of straw, according to the Audubon Society. Less obvious natural materials birds may use for nests include bark strips, pine needles, feathers, grass clippings and plant material such as down from cottonwood trees or the fluffy material from cattails.

Providing nesting material for birds can be as simple as leaving your yard a little untended, letting sticks and leaves remain where they fall, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Or you can gather a collection of materials like sticks and leaves and put them in an out-of-the-way spot or leave small collections of grass clippings in your lawn after cutting the grass. Other ideas for leaving out nesting material include placing it in a suet feeder, stuffing it in crevices on trees and draping it over shrubs and other vegetation.

Another less obvious thing to provide for nest-building birds is a muddy puddle in your yard or garden, according to the Cornell Lab. Many birds, including robins, phoebes and barn swallows, build nests from mud, and having easy access to a mud puddle will help them with the process.

While it is safe to leave out some materials for birds to use in their nests, a few should be avoided, even though birds may sometimes use them when they come across them naturally. Specifically, human hair, dryer lint, yarn, string, tinsel, plastic strips, aluminum foil and cellophane should never be left out for birds. Some of these items, like plastic strips, tinsel, yarn and string, can be tangling hazards for the birds and their nestlings.

Although it may not seem like it, human hair can be similarly dangerous for birds, because it is long, thin and strong, meaning it can become wrapped around a birds wing or leg, the Audubon Society reports. Because it is soft and fluffy, dryer lint may seem like a good choice for nesting material. However, it cannot withstand rain and moisture, so nests built with a lot of lint may crumble or otherwise fail when wet.

Pet fur, too, should be avoided. While fur in general is safe and often used by birds, pet fur can be problematic if the animal has been treated with flea medicine, the Audubon Society reports.

Save yourself from heartbreak: Check your yard for rabbit nests before mowing

It’s a good idea to check your yard for rabbit nests before you cut the grass. These nests frequently resemble little patches of dead grass, but the babies are exposed to lawnmowers because they are only a little bit below the surface.

2. Chemically Treated Pet Fur

Birds frequently gather animal fur to use in their nests. It provides warm, cozy padding for eggs and young birds. However, flea dips and other flea and tick treatments, along with shampoos, conditioners, and powders, frequently involve chemical treatments on pet fur. These toxins are extremely toxic and poisonous to birds in addition to being deadly to undesirable pests. However, if your pet doesn’t receive chemical treatments, their fur might be perfect for birds that build nests. This is because long-haired pets lose their heavier winter coats right before birds use the extra material to build nests.

Tufted Titmouse eating seed from the ground / Shutterstock

Since we are mammals, birds can benefit from human hair just as much as they can from pet fur—but only in similar circumstances. More poisonous to birds than flea dips and other chemicals found in pet fur are the perfumed shampoos, thick conditioners, and colored dyes we use on our hair, as well as styling gels, sprays, and mousses. Even if you use organic products, they can still be harmful to birds and concentrated in your hair. On the other hand, if you don’t use chemicals on your hair, you can leave little clumps from a recent haircut for birds to select from when building a nest. Make sure to trim the length of your hair into shorter sections (3–4 inches) if it is very long. By doing this, the possibility of longer hair tangling around a bird’s legs, feet, or wings is reduced.

4. String and Ribbon

Birds use many stringy materials in their nests. However, leftover string, yarn, thread, and ribbon from crafts aren’t always appropriate for use as nesting material. The vivid hues of yarn and string can attract the interest of predators, and the dyes used to produce those hues may be harmful to birds. In addition, a lot of craft yarns and strings are woven with synthetic fibers, sometimes with plastic compounds or metallic accents. When used to make nests, those materials won’t stretch, yield, or decompose like natural materials would. This implies that they present dangerous tangle hazards for birds, and that they may cause harm or even death if strings and ribbons get entangled in the legs, feet, wings, or necks of the birds. Offering birds only natural, undyed strings or yarn in short, 3–4-inch lengths is recommended.

Even though landscape weed barrier fabric isn’t usually provided by birdwatchers to birds for nesting, diligent birds will discover these enticing strands emerging from flowerbeds and gardens and will tug on it to loosen bits for their nests. Sadly, these materials should be kept out of the reach of birds because they pose the same tangle hazards to them as any artificial string, yarn, or ribbon. To make sure that birds can’t find these improper, dangerous materials, you can add more mulch layers or use multiple stakes to secure the fabric’s edges.


When should you put nesting material out for birds?

Provide birds with natural materials that are safe for them to use and haven’t been treated with chemicals. Some bird species can start to nest early in the year; so you may want to have materials available in your yard by January or February. Remember to refresh your supply for later nesters throughout the spring.

Do birds use birdhouses for shelter in the winter?

Bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, screech owls, swallows, cardinals, sparrows, jays, wrens, and woodpeckers will all use birdhouses or roost boxes to stay warm and out of inclement weather during winter. Especially for smaller birds, finding a safe, warm, and dry place to rest is critical during harsh winter weather.

What do you leave out for bird nests?

If your yard has safe nest sites and adequate construction material, it will be more attractive to birds, including those that don’t visit feeders. Fallen leaves and twigs left unraked make excellent nest materials for many birds.

Should I put nesting material in a bird box?

There’s no need to put nesting material directly into a bird box, as birds are very resourceful when it comes to making a home comfortable. Garden birds may even remove any materials they didn’t put there themselves, as they may think it’s a previous owner’s nest.