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Nests of Birds and. . . not-birds

🎵 One of these things is not like the others 🎶.  If you walk or hike anywhere on PEI in spring and summer, you pass many bird nests without even knowing it. Once leaves drop in fall and winter, these temporary homes become much more visible. Now is a great time to spot nests of birds, as well as nests of not-birds!

Photo 1: A Vireo nest on PEI.

Nests can be identified by location, size, shape, and building materials. You may associate bird nests with trees, but not all birds build arboreal homes. Shorebirds, game birds, most waterfowl, and some songbirds (such as Bobolink, Ovenbirds, and Juncoes, among others) are all ground nesters. Kingfishers and Bank Swallows dig burrows into earthen banks. Other birds including Chickadees, Woodpeckers, and Barred Owls are cavity-nesters. However, the most common nests – and the ones we tend to notice most – are built among tree branches.


One of the most distinctive nests is that of the Vireo (Photo 1).  These greenish-yellow songbirds find a perfectly-forked twig to serve as the frame, and weave strips of bark (especially White Birch), grass, leaves, lichens, and sticky spider webs into a cozy, hanging cup about five centimetres (two inches) across.  Red-eyed Vireos are very common on PEI in spring and summer; if you’ve been in a forest, you’ve almost certainly heard them even if you didn’t know it.  I think their nests are works of art, and love coming across them in fall and winter. 

Photo 2: An America Robin nest on PEI.

The American Robin is familiar to everyone, and its nest is equally easy to identify (Photo 2). The tell-tale sign is that layer of mud around the top, collected by the female from wet spots and earthworm castings. The outside of the nest is a mix of grasses and very small twigs. This is a sturdy, heavy nest (about 0.5 kilogram, or one pound), and the inner bowl is about the size of a baseball.  Robins are not fussy about where they nest: this one was in an apple tree, but I’ve seen them in an idle round-baler, an active garage workshop, and even stowed lawn furniture. 

Photo 3: A Blue Jay nest on PEI.

PEI’s official bird – the Blue Jay – prefers to nest where tree branches form a supportive pocket or crotch (Photo 3).  Unlike the artistic Vireo or mud-mixing Robin, Blue Jays have messier-looking nests made mostly of small twigs and lined with grass or fine plant roots.  While Robins will tolerate human activity during nesting, Blue Jays tend not to and may abandon the nest if disturbed. If you find a nest during breeding season, it can be tempting to check in on it, but that’s never a good idea. It’s always best to give nesting birds – of any species – the space they need to successfully raise the next generation.

Photo 4: A Red Squirrel nest (called a 'drey') on PEI.

My last nest is the odd one out and was built by a mammal rather than a bird.  It’s a Red Squirrel nest, called a ‘drey’ (Photo 4).  Squirrels commonly use tree cavities for both breeding and overwintering. However, where a suitable tree can’t be found – or possibly because some Squirrels just prefer it – they build football-sized nests of grass, leaves, and twigs. Unlike bird nests, dreys aren’t cup-shaped but are almost fully enclosed, with one or two entrances near the tree trunk or a large branch. The inside is well-insulated with soft material such as moss or grass.  The location of this particular drey was very well chosen: it was in the middle of a dense Hawthorne hedge and very well protected from predators!


As you enjoy the last days of an Island winter and the approach of spring, keep your eyes out for nests and other signs of wildlife on PEI untamed!

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