Author photo

By Jon Hammond
contributing writer 

The creative artistry of bird's nests

Land of Four Seasons

 

May 11, 2024



Jon Hammond.

A hummingbird nest is the smallest of all nest structures in North America. The females attach different objects, like little brown flower petals in this instance, to the outside of the nest to aid in concealment.

A male songbird darts down onto a sunny patch of bare soil and catches a few small insects in his bill. In the warm sunlight, he flies into a nearby tree and pauses there, clasping a branch. Then he flies to another perch in a different tree, and then another, and suddenly he swoops furtively into a leafy area and leans forward over a neat cup nest, as four little open mouths stretch upwards and clamor to be fed. A woven circular nest is keeping the next generation of birds warm and protected as they quickly grow into adulthood.

Different species of birds make wildly different kinds of nests, ranging from a simple scrape or depression in gravel to elaborate woven enclosures or even excavated cavities in tree limbs or trunks.

There are more than 700 species of birds that nest in the U.S., and about 115 species that nest in the Tehachapi Mountains. Some of these are resident birds that are here year-round, like California Quail and California Scrub Jays, and others are neotropical migrants like Bullock's Orioles and Western Tanagers. These colorful birds are only here in the spring for the breeding season, and then in summer they head back south.

Ground-nesting birds in our area sometimes make nests that are very simple. One example of this are Killdeer, a bird that oldtimers called "Killdee," which is a good approximation of the sound that they make. I have no idea why the "r" was added to its official common name.

Jon Hammond.

This unusual nest is the style made by some of our tiniest songbirds, little gray poufs called Bushtits. The entire family sleeps inside this nest each night until the young are ready to fledge.

Anyway, Killdeer make a shallow little basin in gravel, and then lay four speckled eggs that blend in incredibly well with the surrounding small rocks. You can be three or four feet from a Killdeer nest, and actually looking right at it, and still not spot it. My neighbors Gary and Margo Warner have Killdeer nest on their driveway in the crushed asphalt road base every year.

Quail hide their ground nests more carefully, since they are easier to spot with 10 to 16 eggs, and often make them at the base of a shrub or even under overhanging grass or other foliage.

Horned Larks are grassland birds that usually conceal their circular basket nests a little below the surface height, usually right up alongside a small clump of grass or vegetation to provide concealment. Typical of many bird species, the female weaves the main part of the nest with grasses, roots, and other shredded vegetation, and then lines the inside with softer materials like down, fur, feathers, and soft grasses.

Birds that nest in trees often go to great lengths to conceal their nests from potential predators. A good example is the female hummingbird, who builds her nest and raises her young with zero help from the male.

Mother hummingbirds build their tiny nests using spider silk and plant down, which they form into a little cup. These nests are usually attached to a slender twig within a tree or shrub, but in more modern times hummingbird nests can sometimes found on electric cords, wire, or hidden on signs.

These miniature nests are incredibly soft and resemble a scooped out, thick-sided cotton ball. To camouflage the nest, the female often finishes it off by attaching little bits of lichen, moss, flower petals, bark or even chips or flakes of dried paint.

Jon Hammond.

Bullock's Orioles weave these nests, which are more pouch-like and pendulous when still attached to the slender branches where they were built. Orioles use a variety of fibers to construct the nest, from plants to horsehair to string. They use whatever fibers are available, as the three different colors of these nests demonstrates.

Larger songbirds often make various kinds of cup nests which they also conceal in the branches of trees. Bullock's Orioles craft pendulous, gourd-shaped nests that they weave from plant strips, horsehair, string, grass, shredded bark and any found fibers that suit their purpose.

Orioles place these hanging nests in the very thinnest, most slender branches and twigs that still have enough strength to hold the nest, and include enough leaves to provide concealment.

These dangling nests are usually invisible during the fairly brief nesting season, and you don't notice them until autumn when the leaves drop and these woven pouches are revealed.

There is tiny gray bird called a Bushtit that lives in oak woodlands and makes a very distinctive nest that looks a bit like a felted sock hanging from a branch, with a large lemon stored down towards the toe.

It can take the male and female Bushtit a month to build this extraordinary, stretchy nest, which can hang down a foot from where it is anchored. It is assembled from spider silk and plant material. Like a hummingbird nest, the outside is decorated and made cryptic with little bits and fragments of shoots, catkins, tree bark and other plant material.

It is in this soft, somewhat elastic hanging nest that the parent Bushtits raise their young. They often have help from unrelated adult birds, most of whom are males, which is a decided rarity in the avian world.

In another uncommon behavior, all the Bushtits associated with the nest sleep inside it every night: the chicks, the parents, and the adult helpers all snuggle down inside their cozy, suspended, green and gray flannel home.

The diminutive Bushtits spend so much time building their nest that they generally reuse it for a second brood in the season, which is also not typical – most songbirds start from scratch and construct a new nest if they raise a second brood.

Raptors typically build large, coarse stick nests that they then line with soft materials. Red-tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls and Ravens all use the same style of nest, and may refurbish and use an existing nest previously built by one of the other three similar-sized birds.

Jon Hammond.

Both California Scrub Jays and Steller's Jays build nests like these, with an outer structure of coarse gray sticks and twigs, and an inner lining of finer brown plant fibers.

Birds show incredible diversity in their approach to nest building. These temporary structures first offer shelter and protection for the eggs and the adults who are incubating them, and then once the eggs hatch, they provide a home to the chicks until they're ready to fledge. The nest is the chicks' entire world until they leave home, but once they leave, they don't return.

Accompanying this column are some photos of nests found by my brother, George Hammond, in autumn or winter, long after their builders had abandoned them and left them behind in trees now bare of leaves.

Nesting season is underway now, and some of the first young birds have already left the nest, even as other adults continue tending their young and some parents start to work raising a second brood. It is a productive time in the feathered world of birds.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at tehachapimtnlover@gmail.com.

 
 

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