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Birds are natural architects. The variety and complexity of their nests and their innate construction skills have long fascinated ornithologists and bird-lovers alike. Although the origin of nest-building is lost to us, the function of nests is clear: birds build nests to provide a climate-controlled incubation chamber for their eggs. For altricial birds (those who need parental nurturing), nests also provide a protective environment until they can function on their own.

The types of nests birds construct and the locations they choose are determined by the physical and biological characteristics of their environment: heat and humidity and the presence of competitors, predators, and parasites. Some species build in trees or shrubs; others secure their nests to grasses or reeds. Birds build nests on the ground and on cliff faces, ledges, and the walls of buildings. They build in holes in trees and in burrows in the ground – cavities they find or make themselves. They even build nests that float on water. Location constrains nest architecture. For example, tree- and shrub-nesting songbirds typically build open, cup-shaped nests, whereas many ground-nesting birds simply scrape out a depression, which they may line with insulation material. Birds also build nests shaped like domes and mounds and sacks, spheres, and platforms. Birds of the same species tend to construct similarly shaped nests.

Here we present images of a small sample of birds’ nests from the Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s Albert G. Prill Birds’ Nest Collection. Consisting of more than 200 songbird nests and those of a few water fowl and other species, the nests are part of a large collection of mounted birds, study skins, eggs, and nests that Dr. Prill donated to the University of Oregon in 1945. Fascinated by birds from childhood and with a permit from the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Prill, who lived for many years in Scio, Oregon, collected nests of Pacific Northwest birds, and he traded for nests from other parts of North America. For more information about the man and his ornithological collections, see collections/web-galleries/birds-eggs. Note: Names in image captions have been updated to reflect current scientific usage and may differ from original specimen labels.

Text by Phyllis Fisher with assistance of David Bontrager, photography by Elizabeth A. Kallenbach, and web development by Keith Hamm.

Further Reading:

Collias, N.E. and E.C. Collias
1984  Nest Building and Bird Behavior. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

Erlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye
1988  The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Sibley, D.A.
2000  The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Fuller, H.
n.d.  Glossary to Archaic Bird Names Found in Old CBC Records (and Other Historic Bird Records). Electronic document:

Gadwall - Anas strepera
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Rufous Hummingbird - Selasphorus rufus
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American Robin - Turdus migratorius
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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher - Polioptila caerulea
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Western Kingbird - Tyrannus verticalis
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American Goldfinch - Spinus tristus
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Yellow Warbler - Setophaga petechia
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Gray Jay - Perisoreus canadensis
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Cedar Waxwing - Bombycilla cedrorum
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Spotted Towhee - Pipilo maculatus
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Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis
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Savannah Sparrow - Passerculus sandwichensis
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Bushtit - Psaltriparus minimus
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American Dipper - Cinclus mexicanus
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Marsh Wren - Cistothorus palustris
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