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BirdNote: Spider Silk and Birds’ Nests

Air Date: Week of

Some hummingbirds and kinglets use spider webs in the construction of their nests. (Photo: Andy Teucher)

In nesting season, ingenious birds make use of many objects they find to construct a snug home for their eggs. But as Michael Stein reveals, some small birds like kinglets and hummingbirds have found that spider silk collected from webs is just the thing to hold nests together, the bird equivalent of duct tape.



CURWOOD: At my house we know it’s spring when ducks swoop down to our pond for a quick bite to eat on their way North, and phoebes show up to build nests under the eaves of the house. And as Michael Stein explains in this BirdNote®, for some species, nest building can involve ingenious repurposing, the bird version of reduce, reuse and recycle.


Spider Silk and Bird Nests
A spider’s web is an intricate piece of precision engineering. And the spider silk it’s constructed with is amazing. Made from large proteins, it’s sticky, stretchy, and tough. So it’s no surprise that many small birds make a point of collecting strands of spider silk to use in nest construction – birds like hummingbirds, kinglets, gnatcatchers, and some vireos.

[Golden-crowned Kinglet song, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/197096, 0.15-.19]

Golden-crowned Kinglets, among the smallest of songbirds, build a tiny, square nest. They often use strands of spider silk to suspend the structure from adjoining twigs, like a tiny hammock.

A tiny Anna’s Hummingbird sits on a nest held together by spider’s silk. (Photo: Steve Berardi)

[Ruby-throated Hummingbird squeaks, wing hum, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/176299, 0.13-.16]

When a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is building her nest, she collects the spider silk she needs by sticking it all over her beak and breast. When she reaches the nest site, she’ll press and stretch the silk onto the other materials – such as lichen and moss – creating a tough, tiny cup. Spider silk not only acts as a glue, holding the other bits together, but it’s flexible enough to accommodate the growing bodies of nestlings. And it’s resilient enough to withstand all the bustle of raising those hungry babies.

[Ruby-throated Hummingbird squeaks, wing hum, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/176299, 0.13-.16]

Where we might reach for duct tape, these birds turn to spider silk.

I’m Michael Stein.

Written by Bob Sundstrom
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Golden-crowned Kinglet [197096] recorded by Bob McGuire; Ruby-throated Hummingbird [176299] recorded by G A Keller
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2016 Tune In to Nature.org April 2016 for Living on Earth Narrator: Michael Stein



CURWOOD: Duct tape! Who’d a thunk it? For more flap on over to our web site – where you’ll find – not spiders, but photos.



Read more on the BirdNote website

More unique bird nests

Listen to the Anna’s Hummingbird and other bird songs on the Macauley Library website

Study: The elaborate structure of spider silk: structure and function of a natural high performance fiber


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