Bird Nests: A Little-Known Collection

People who get a chance to visit the museum’s Bird Collection at the museum’s Natural Heritage Campus are often surprised by the scope of this collection. In addition to bird specimens, it also contains ancillary collections that document various aspects of bird biology.

In the 19th century for example, when egg collections were a popular (and legal) hobby, bird nests were sometimes collected, and some of these were later bequeathed to the Canadian Museum of Nature. Over the years, the museum put together a representative collection of nests for reference. This material also helps document the diversity of nesting habits among different species.

A woman stands by an open specimen drawer.

The nest of a Greater White-fronted Goose from Alaska, USA, is examined by museum volunteer Carol German. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A taxidermied bird specimen.

A Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) specimen. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Geese and ducks build their nests from down that they take from their belly. This operation leaves them with a patch of naked skin that facilitates incubation, creating a direct contact between the eggs and the bird’s body heat. When a bird that is incubating has to leave the nest, it covers up the eggs with down from the nest. This down serves as both camouflage and insulation.

Collage: Two bird nests.

Left: A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) nest. Right: A Red-billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus) nest. Images: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is a common species in the Ottawa Region. Several species of hummingbirds build nests made of insulating plant fibres, like the one shown above. Then, they cover the outside of the nest with pieces of lichen glued together using spider webs. The green plumage of the female as it sits in the nest is a marvellous finishing touch to the camouflage, making it look like a simple growth on a branch.

The Red-billed Streamertail nest shown above is from Jamaica. In a tropical climate, thermal insulation is less critical and the nest of the streamertail looks like a crude plate, just big enough to receive the eggs.

Two hands hold an open box containing a nest.

A Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A taxidermied bird specimen.

A Chimney Swift specimen. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

Swifts vaguely resemble swallows. The Chimney Swift—a widespread species in Canada—puts its nest inside a hollow tree trunk or a chimney. The nest is a simple platform made of dried twigs collected by the swift while in flight from treetops. These are then glued to a tree trunk or a chimney using the bird’s sticky saliva. Some Asian chimney swifts have nests that are entirely made of this saliva. These are sometimes used in oriental cuisine as a soup ingredient.

An overhead view of a nest in an open specimen drawer.

A Rufous Hornero (Furnarius rufus) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Rufous Hornero is a bird from South America whose name “Hornero” derives from the special shape of its nest, which looks like an old-fashioned oven. This bird is as big as a robin and builds its nest using mud, which dries to become hard as brick. The example shown here was given to the museum in 1986 by an Argentinian diplomat stationed in Canada.

An open specimen drawer containing nests and a boot.

The boot contains a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

A taxidermied bird specimen.

A House Wren specimen. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

There are some 10 000 extant bird species that have colonized almost all parts of Earth. They have also developed extremely diversified nesting methods.

The House Wren can make its nest in all kinds of cavities, often near human dwellings—hence its common name. Back in 1935, one of them set up house in an old boot left in a woodlot. After the nesting period, the property owner donated this strange nest to the museum.

Two hands hold an open box containing a bird nest.

A Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Sedge Wren highlights another aspect in the amazing diversity of birds’ nesting habits. When he returns from its hibernating grounds, located in the southern United States, the male from this species builds several nests. The females arrive later, and when couples are formed, it is up to the female to choose the nest she wants to use, whereupon she lines the inside with feathers or fine plant fibres.

Collage: Two taxidermied bird specimens and two nests.

Top: A Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) specimen and nest. Bottom: A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerine) specimen and nest. Images: Martin Lipman and Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

The Baltimore Oriole nest shown above was collected in Ottawa in April 1926. Instead of the plant fibres normally used by orioles, you can see that this nest is made of mop strands and a little horsehair. What’s more, the mop strands are completely blackened by soot. This simple nest conjures up the bygone days of Ottawa when coal was used for heating (and for running locomotives into downtown), and horses were widely used as a means of transportation.

The Chipping Sparrow nest above was also collected in Ottawa, though in 2014. Here the bird used nylon fibres from nets used to protect evergreen trees in winter. Other times, other means…

A hand holds a stick from which a nest hangs.

A Baya Weaver (Ploceus philippinus) nest. Image: Michel Gosselin © Canadian Museum of Nature

Weaver nests are among the most elaborate bird nests. Above, we show the nest of a Baya Weaver from the Indian sub-continent that was donated to the museum several decades ago. The bird (actually only the male in this case) must collect almost 1000 plant filaments in order to weave the nest and create a maze inside, which is basically used to outsmart predators.

Translated from French.

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