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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Spring Nesting

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Sy Montgomery marvels at the beauty and ingenuity of bird nests.


CURWOOD: This time of year, birds are nesting almost everywhere. Piping plovers are laying eggs on beach sand, wood ducks in abandoned woodpecker holes, robins in apple trees and under house eaves. Some nests are easy but most are cleverly engineered. Great blue herons raise their nestlings 40 feet off the ground, over swamps, in carefully-constructed see-through stick-pile nests. Northern orioles make pendulous pouches for their young. Commentator Sy Montgomery finds these structures inspiring.

MONTGOMERY: The whole idea of nesting is rather astonishing, if not absurd, especially when you think of what those seemingly flimsy structures are built to contain. Eggs. Eggs! Consider the bird's dilemma. As Joan Dunning puts it in her wonderful book Secrets of the Nest, we have this funny little animal with its hands essentially tied behind its back. The survival of its species dependent on how well it can protect a ridiculous round, rolly, fragile thing containing its future offspring.

But the birds are amazingly resourceful. We tend to think of most nests as woven bowl-shaped affairs, but many are not. Owls, bluebirds, titmice, and wood ducks, for instance, nest in tree hollows, for which they gather eclectic linings. Tufted titmice are particularly fond of lining their nests with shed snake skins, but they'll also pull the hair from squirrels' tails, or from live woodchucks, or even men's beards. A few birds, like puffins and burrowing owls, dig holes in which they lay their eggs and raise their young. Some, like red-eyed vireos, construct hammock-like nests suspended between the forks of twigs.

Even the more typical bowl-shaped construction is a wonder. Many are strengthened by the addition of mud, which birds gather in their bills. Ever wonder why you see robins this time of year with muddy red breasts? That's because they rotate around in their newly-plastered nests to create smooth bowls. Warblers and hummingbirds use other materials, too. They pick at spiderwebs and caterpillar cocoons, gathering sticky gossamer to bind their nests to branches. Hummingbirds even collect lichens to camouflage the outside of their walnut-sized nests.

If the construction of nests is amazing, the sites they sometimes choose seem to defy reason. Nests have been found in the pockets of scarecrows and in tin cans. A black-chinned hummingbird once built her inch-wide, cup-shaped nest on top of an orange. Another, a house wren, once built hers in the rear axle of a car that was actually driven. The eggs still hatched.

So often, birds build their nests in the very shadow of the clumsy, giant monkeys that birds surely consider humans to be. Many birds nest almost literally on our doorsteps: at our windows and in our window boxes. Some, such as barn swallows, house finches, robins, and phoebes, won't even mind if you or your child takes a peek. And that's a good thing for us to do, because to look in a nest -- carefully, of course, and reverently -- reminds us of the promise and the fragility of the future.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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