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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Now's the time to be gathering natural nesting material


Texas birds seek material for making nests, and are attracted to places where they can easily get the nesting materials.  More and more, however, the fields and forests where they got it in past years have become shopping centers, parking lots and subdivisions. So offering nest material for the birds is almost as enticing to them as putting out fresh food.
        The materials that birds use for nest-building can be almost anything that’s somewhat small, stringy and lightweight. Also, most nests are cemented together with mud, so it’s a good idea to have water and/or mud nearby. (It doesn’t have to be very conspicuous, or even in your own yard – birds will find it!) It’s not uncommon for a bird to make over a thousand trips with beaks-full of mud, pine needles, grasses, leaves or whatever, just before nesting season.

      One of the most popular natural materials is fur. We have a golden retriever that sheds 365 days a year. Often we’ll comb her and save the fur. Then we put it in a container, such as a wire suet basket, hanging it from a branch. Over the next few days  chickadees, cardinals, titmice, jays and many others pull out strands of the golden fur to take to their nest sites in nearby trees. Weeks later, if we’re lucky enough spot a nest, we’ll carefully inspect it and find several tiny eggs nestled gently in golden fur.
       In the wild, this might be fur from deer, foxes, bobcats, coyotes, moose, raccoons or even bears – but it’s 100% natural. If you don’t have a long-haired dog, try horsehair or even hair clippings from hairdressers or barbers. Some ready-made items are sold in stores. One made from sheep’s wool has the advantage of being water repellant.

 Given a choice, however, wild birds often choose natural nesting material from plants. Many Texas birds look for dead, native grasses for nesting material. If you really want birds to nest in your yard, leave an area in tall grass (at least a foot), letting it stand through the winter. Robins, several kinds of sparrows, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, flycatchers and bluebirds use grasses enthusiastically. Some favorites are bluestem, indiangrass, muhly and gramma.  I’m certainly not talking about a typical lawn (with bermudagrass or St. Augustine mowed to less than 2 inches.) This type of lawn is a very unattractive and sterile habitat for almost all birds, who need the safety of tall, dense vegetation that they can flee to quickly when a predator appears.
        Many lawns are also “treated” with pesticides, weed killers and chemical fertilizers, which can end up harming wildlife – or at least causing birds to go elsewhere.  (Remember DDT ?)

 Wild birds often use other plant items for nesting, too. Thin strips of bark from many types of trees native to north Texas often end up in birdnests.  Thin bark stripped from young trees (like redbud, red cedar, eve’s necklace, roughleaf dogwood or cedar elm) are preferred by birds. Small chips of bark (from almost any tree, but oaks are a favorite) are used to cushion the bottom of nests. Almost anything is a candidate. And since birds were here in north Texas thousands of years before humans, the more natural a material is, the more likely it is to be used in a bird’s nest.

  TEN PERCENT!!!!      On average, just about 10% of a bird’s diet is food from feeders. The bulk of their food is natural seed, berries, insects, fruit etc. Of course, there’s more activity at your feeders when food is scarce or hidden by snow or ice.  And, since birds weigh so little and have a high metabolism rate, they have to eat daily - particularly in cool or rainy weather.


Owen Yost, in addition to blogging, is a Landscape Architect emeritus from here, whos worked in north Texas for over 30 years.  He is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Society of Landscape Architects, the National BirdFeeding Society, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award by the Native Plant Society of Texas. His design office is at

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