Banner image: Thrush sitting in a nest

With spring firmly on the horizon, you’ll probably have noticed lots more activity from the birds in your garden, local parks and woodlands. With milder weather and more daylight hours, many birds start looking for a mate and begin creating a home in which to bring up their chicks.

Among the first to start on the property ladder are long-tailed tits, who begin their building project in February. Their nests are exquisite creations, taking up to three weeks to build with both the male and female bird on the job. Shaped like a pear with a small entrance hole towards the top, the nest is constructed from lichen, moss, feathers and cobwebs. The spider silk is an important building material – allowing the nest to expand as the chicks increase in size. Between six and eight eggs are laid – so space is at a premium.

Despite all the effort that goes into nest construction, just a small proportion of long-tailed tits succeed in raising a family. This is because the eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predators such as magpies and weasels. When a nest fails however, the birds often turn their energies towards helping another couple raise their family – usually a sibling or other relative. This behaviour, called ‘co-operative breeding’, gives the ‘adopted’ chicks a better chance of survival and can also provide the helpers with an opportunity to develop their parenting skills ready for the next season.

Image: Long-tailed tit

Blackbirds begin building a nest later in the year – usually from March onwards. Blackbird nests are stronger and more rigid than those created by the long-tailed tit, being constructed mainly of twigs, moss and dried grass. It is not unusual to discover a blackbird nest in the garden, as the birds often set up home not far from the ground in shrubs or climbers. Their cup-shaped nests are lined with mud to provide extra strength, and because of their longevity the birds often re-use their nests for subsequent broods.

The delicate process of weaving a nest from sticks and other materials isn’t for everyone though. The great spotted woodpecker, for example, creates a home using a little more brute force. Using their strong beaks, a male and female duo will spend around two weeks excavating a hole into a tree which the eggs are laid into. Because they require lots of energy to create, these holes are often re-used year after year.

The diminutive willow tit is another nest ‘excavator’, chiselling a nesting hole into standing dead or rotting wood, which is much softer. Sadly, this very specialised habitat requirement, combined with the fact that freshly created nesting holes are often stolen by larger species such as great tits, has led to widespread population loss. Conservation efforts for these pretty black and white birds are focussed on providing standing deadwood in woodlands where there are known to be populations.  

Some birds on the other hand – such as sparrows – frequently make use of ‘ready-made’ spaces to raise their families, commonly squeezing under the eaves of a house and into a crevice in the roof. They will fill this chamber with dry grass, straw, feathers, hair and even paper. In newer homes, these ready-made nesting holes are less common so if you’d like to encourage these plucky little birds, you could invest in a specially designed sparrow nest box and erect it under the eaves of your home. These boxes are different from standard boxes as they are comprised of three or more boxes side by side as sparrows prefer to nest communally.

Image: Sparrow on a roof in the UK

Robins are another bird which are happy to move into a ‘ready-made’ nesting location – and it seems almost any location will do! Nests have been discovered in coat pockets, plant pots, wellington boots and even car engines. The nest itself is constructed solely by the female, who weaves together dried grasses, leaves and small twigs. Despite not playing a part in the building, the male does have a crucial role, supplying much of his mate’s food during the construction phase. Multiple broods of two or three are common for robins, but they will rarely re-use a nest, preferring to start afresh elsewhere or building on top of an old nest.

Putting up a nest box is a great way to increase the chances of a bird family taking up residence in your garden. Blue tits, great tits, robins, sparrows and starlings all use nest boxes but have different requirements in terms of nest box type and position – check out the RSPB’s website for advice. They can be put up at virtually any time of year - birds will start checking them out from January onwards.

Please note, all wild bird species, their eggs and nests are protected by law, and should not be disturbed during the breeding season.

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