Nests in Winter

Most of us have seen a nest or two, either perched in a leafless tree or lying on the ground after an especially blustery day. Typically used only once for a brief span of time, these nests are essential for breeding and require tremendous amounts of energy and time to construct.

The bare winter landscape gives us an opportunity to get a closer look at these works of determination, all of which are constructed from a variety of materials, using different techniques. So, how can you tell who makes the nests we most often see and how do they do it? Read on to find out!


American Goldfinch
American goldfinch nest © Bob Phillips

American Goldfinch

What to Look For 

Goldfinch nests are typically built up high in shrubs or saplings in fairly open settings (think residential areas and fields) among well-spaced deciduous trees. Wee little things measuring just three inches in diameter, these nests can often be spotted where two or three vertical branches join, often near the ends of limbs.

How Do They Do It?

Though male and female goldfinches partner up to choose a nest site, the female does all the heavy lifting. Using fibers such as spider silk, she secures the nest base to a tree branch and then builds a tightly woven cup out of rootlets and plant fibers above it. To top it off, she uses downy material from seedheads, such as milkweed and thistle to line the inside. All told, it takes just under a week to finish her masterpiece.

Did You Know?

Sometimes waiting until July to begin breeding (long after most other species have wrapped up rearing their young), American goldfinches are one of the latest birds to nest in North America.


American Robin © Hillary Truslow, Mass Audubon
American Robin © Hillary Truslow, Mass Audubon

American Robin

What to Look For 

Because robin nests are fairly large (between six and eight inches wide) and so well built, they are one of the easiest to spot after the nesting season. Look for them in shrubs and on horizontal branches in the lower halves of trees. Though they also can be found among the treetops, as well as in human-made structures, such as gutters and eaves.

How Do They Do It? 

Real interior designers, female robins build their nests from the inside out. First, they use their wings to form a compacted cup out of dead grass and twigs. (Other commonly used construction materials include paper, feathers, roots, and moss.) Next, mud is added for reinforcement and the cup is lined with fine, dry grass. The finished product can take anywhere from two to six days to construct, depending on the weather.

Did You Know?

Female brown-headed cowbirds sometimes lay their eggs in robin nests. This survival strategy, known as “brood parasitism,” allows cowbirds to flourish while the robins do all the work!


Baltimore oriole nest, © Henry McLin, flickr
Baltimore oriole nest, © Henry McLin, flickr

Baltimore Oriole

What to Look For

Resembling oversized pendulous cocoons, oriole nests can be seen in American elms, maples, and cottonwoods hanging near the tips of branches anywhere from 15-30 feet off the ground. Because of the types of plant fibers used, these nests often have a silvery appearance. This, combined with their conspicuous location, often make them quite easy to spot.

How Do They Do It?

After the male Baltimore oriole has established a territory, the female selects a nest location. Using her beak, she knits together a sock-like nest of plant fibers such as grasses and bark, as well as wool, hair, and, sometimes, synthetic materials like fishing line. Construction can take up to 15 days and happens in three stages: assembling the outer basket, forming the inner cup, and, finally, lining the cup.  

Did You Know?

Baltimore orioles are thrifty—if sometimes shifty—birds: They frequently recycle material from previous years’ nests in addition to stealing it from neighboring birds (including fellow orioles!). 


Chipping sparrow nest © podius / 123RF Stock Photo
Chipping sparrow nest © podius / 123RF Stock Photo

Chipping Sparrow

What to Look For

The delicate design and extensive use of hair in the lining of chipping sparrow nests make them quite distinctive. Typically hidden among foliage near the tips of branches, these nests can most often be found in evergreen shrubs between three and ten feet off the ground. Other popular sites include crabapple trees, honeysuckle tangles, and ornamental shrubs around the house.

How Do They Do It?

The female chipping sparrow builds the nest while the male fends off predators and other males. Hasty little things and minimalist in their approach, chipping sparrows build their nests in just three or four days. The result is a loose cup of rootlets and dried grasses lined with animal hair and fine plant fibers.

Did You Know?

“Chippies” can be quite selective when it comes to where they will raise a family. It’s not uncommon for this species to halt nest building mid-construction, only to start from scratch in another location.


Squirrel nest © McClouds, flickr
Squirrel nest © McClouds, flickr

Eastern Gray Squirrel

What to Look For

Measuring up to two feet wide, squirrel nests are hard to miss. These shoddy looking yet surprisingly sturdy nests are often built near the trunk of a tree or at the “fork” of large limb at least 20 feet above the ground. Look for them in oaks, red maples, and beech trees—where squirrels get much of their food. 

How Do They Do It?

After constructing a twig platform layered with leaves and moss, squirrels build a spherical frame of twigs and vines around the base. This “shell” is then covered with more twigs, leaves, and moss. A soft lining of shredded bark, grass, and—you guessed it, more leaves—is then added to the inner cavity, and a concealed escape hatch is constructed just across from the entrance, for use should any unwelcome guests stop by for dinner.

Did You Know?

Squirrels stay busy year-round, fabricating nests for breeding, storage, and concealment—but summer is an especially fun time to watch as juveniles build practice nests!