Bird nests, large and small

This is the time of year when you will see birds, large and small, lurking in corners of your yard, scouring brush and sidewalks, in search of materials for their nests. Nearly all Minnesota birds, large and small, spend significant time building (or renovating) their nests, sometimes spending weeks perfecting them. In a ramble through the park, you might come across a nest as small as a golf ball, as large as the hood of a car, or anywhere in between. All of these nests serve the purpose of protecting the bird’s eggs and chicks until they are able to fly, but each bird has its own strategy to make that work. Let’s take a look at some of the interesting nests you could observe this spring.

Most of us have seen a robin’s nests: these familiar mud-and-grass constructions are often placed low in trees, on gutter downspouts, or on building ledges, making them ideal for observation. If you would like to take some time to look for nesting robins this spring, watch for birds carrying beaks-full of short twigs or grasses (or even string), or hanging out around muddy puddles after a rain. Robins don’t usually collect materials for their nests far from where they are building, so watch the bird as it flies to follow it to its nest site. While it’s important not to disturb birds on their nests, robins are very tolerant of people as long as you keep a comfortable distance away—if you have a young child in your life, take some time to find a nest this spring and observe it every few days. Can you tell when the nest is finished, when the eggs have been laid, or when they’ve hatched? Nest watching is a fascinating activity.

The smallest nest we will encounter in this state belongs to the ruby-throated hummingbird—these nests are about two inches across and well-camouflaged with lichens and moss. With their long beaks and miniscule feet, building a nest can be tricky for these tiny birds, but a hummer’s nest is a marvel of nest engineering. The female does all of the building—she collects dandelion and thistle down, and holds this fluff together with strands of sticky spider silk. To the outside, she sticks tiny plants to disguise the nest, which becomes nearly impossible to see. The fluffy stuff keeps the eggs warm and the spider webs serve the dual purpose of holding the nest together while also allowing it to stretch as the babies grow. A hummingbird nest might be stretched an extra inch or more as the chicks press against the flexible walls.

On the extreme opposite end are the conspicuous and gigantic nests of bald eagles. Averaging six feet across and containing several hundred pounds of sticks, grass, moss and green leaves, these behemoths are located high in the canopy and are reused and added to from year to year. Some eagle nests have been used for 20 years or more, growing bigger each season; in fact, some have become so large that their supporting trees have become unable to hold them. Eagle collect sticks with their beaks and talons, and may spend a month or more building or refurbishing their nests. With their large size and charismatic occupants, eagle nests are exciting to watch—just ask the thousands of people who log on the DNR’s eagle cam each day! If you’d like a real-life experience, stop in to the nature center to find out where you can view an eagle nest from our very own park.


Watching nesting birds reminds us that spring is a busy time not only for us but for our wildlife friends as well. Please remember if you choose to nest watch this year that all native birds and bird nests are protected by law—be sure your presence is not disturbing or distracting the bird, and leave nests where they are, even after the young have fledged. If you find a nest you can safely watch, however, pat yourself on the back and enjoy the flurry of activity that is spring.

Join us for the following nature program. Reservations are required. Call 763-559-6700. Big River, Small Fry: Boats and the River. May 12, 9 a.m.-noon. Get out of the house with your little one and enjoy a morning of nature activities. Drop in any time for games, stories, guided walks, and more. For ages birth-6; $5 per person.