Birds, Crafts, nature study, Spring, Urban, Winter

Recycling Is For the Birds!

02.24.09 | 27 Comments

nest-building stuff

Nothing is wasted in nature.

I was reading the newspaper one day, scanning the weekend garage sales, and came across a morbid delight. A widower, a doctor, living alone in his home, had died. The belongings of his estate was itemized, monetized and laid for sale that weekend.

I knew this man. His wife, whom he had survived by six months, was a dear friend of mine. I met her when I was nine. First, she was my art teacher, then my mentor, and finally, my boss. All of the tender things she had kept in her home as a reminder of our friendship: clay figurines I had sculpted, my drawings, my paintings, were up for grabs that weekend.

We were the first to arrive and the last to leave that day. For three hundred dollars, I bought all of my childhood artwork, several keepsakes, a sailor’s map of the Gulf Coast, and a set of vintage upholstered lawn chairs. I had scavenged everything I could afford, nesting material of my own, and loaded with memory. On the way out, I was escorted slowly by Pepper, the family poodle who had survived both of them, and it was then that I started to cry.

Those lawn chairs have remained outdoors, always near me, every season since, and each year has brought songbirds to the chairs. They come to sing, be sentinel, be quiet, and scavenge. For three years, I watched them pluck away at the frayed upholstery until I could bear it no longer. One day, I carried the cushions out back by the compost as an offering to the birds, deciding that I couldn’t watch them pick away at the recycled legacy of my friend, who would have begged me to change the nappy cushions by then, anyway.

Ask the first Robin you see outside this spring what is on her mind and her answer will likely be this:

“I’m about to make myself a righteous nest! Wait…over there: a grub! Bye!”

You never know what a bird might use to build a nest, but it is certain that they will take what they can get:

Ornithological literature is full of stories of birds making nests out of stuff stolen from humans. Massachusetts ornithologist and early conservation activist Edward Howe Forbush reported that in 1913 cormorants off the coast of Labrador built their nests entirely from materials scavenged from a sunken trading ship, including men’s pipes, ladies’ combs, pocketknives and hairpins. In his Encyclopedia of North American Birds, John Terres describes a canyon wren’s nest in Fresno County, California, built entirely of office supplies, including paper clips, rubber bands, thumbtacks and paper fasteners. In Nest Building and Bird Behavior, researchers Nicholas and Elsie Collias report a pigeon nest, located near a Michigan factory, that was built of pieces of iron wire. They also tell of a house martin nest in Great Britain constructed not with the usual mud, but with wet cement filched from a construction site.

-Cynthia Berger, National Wildllife magazine Feb/Mar 1991, vol. 29 no. 2

Even though the world is ripe with nesting bits, it brings this family comfort to know that we recycle a bit for the birds, as well. Into a sack, we retain anything that might be suitable. The majority of the supplies tend to be cotton strips up to 2-6″ in length (not too long!)ย  but here is the complete list of possible recyclables:

  • cloth, scrap fabric, especially cotton (which resembles milkweed fluff!)
  • yarn, string, thread, raffia
  • unravelled or moth-ridden sweaters (remember the classic story of No Roses for Harry?
  • pine needles
  • dental floss
  • wheat straw
  • shoelaces
  • ribbons
  • animal fur or wool
  • cotton (from aspirin bottles)
  • strips of potato sacks, jute
  • straw & dried plant clippings
  • spanish moss
  • cellophane Easter grass (not the plastic kind–there is a difference)
  • dryer lint–as long as it’s fragrance-free
  • feathers (if you don’t raise chickens, maybe you have an old pillow or down vest from the 80s? some of us aren’t so choosy!)
  • a pan of mud

Amber’s contribution

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t set out anything that won’t biodegrade. I’m not sure about the Easter grass, but I’ve seen several nests lined with them before. Crazy! No nylon, polyester rags, fishing monofilament or fiberglass insulation.

It’s funny how different birds have their preferences. Cedar waxwings and Eastern Kingbirds prefer short strips of rags. When the waxwings are migrating through your area, lay a pile of cotton rags in an open spot and see what happens. Robins have already arrived here, and they are the first sign of spring and nest-building. Find out how to attract them to your backyard and stay for the season.

There are several ways in which you can distribute the nesting stuff:

  • From a tree, hang a mesh onion bag or wire suet cage (more durable), filled with these materials, and pull some samplings out through the holes. The birds will notice the dangling threads and start grabbing very soon.
  • Use a platform, raised off the ground, on which to tack twigs and other stiff nesting supports.
  • Place your offerings in different areas to avoid bird squabbling.
  • Continue to offer nesting materials until August, since some birds make up to two or three nests per breeding season.
  • Don’t forget a pan of high-clay, stone-free mud for the robins and whoever else might be interested in it: cliff swallows, barn swallows, wood thrushes, purple martins…
barn swallowsSwallow Chicks, on Flickr, by Marele & Alan.

  • You could also cultivate a mud pit in your yard; butterflies like mud, too!
  • It’s best to leave most of the nesting materials off the ground if you have a cat. Drape them from tree branches or any place that seems intuitive.
  • Drag your christmas tree out back and make a snag–perfect timing for spring! Not only are the parts useful, but the birds can quickly find cover in them, when necessary.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t use pesticides: spider webs are TERRIFIC nesting material.

Also, don’t let the yard guys take away all the yard trimmings! Start a compost pile, and kill two birds (sorry!) with one stone: more dirt (and mud!) and more free scraps for the birds! It’s awesome!


I want to know: If you’ve ever looked around, what’s the craziest building material you’ve ever seen used in a bird’s nest?

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