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How to Provide Nesting Material to Birds in Your Garden

Spring is here, and birds around the world—and in your backyard—are turning into construction crews. It’s nesting time!

Many songbirds are master builders, putting together intricately made weavings of twig and leaf, stem and fluff, hair and moss. Some nests, like the Baltimore oriole’s, will hang from a tree branch like a small tote bag. Others, like the robin’s, are cups bristling with twigs painstakingly collected one or a few at a time. Even if you provide birdhouses in your garden, the birds that occupy them will build nests in them.

A chickadee in Southampton, NY, plucks nesting material from a coco mat put over a trellis by Victoria Reith, who took this photo for the 2013 National Wildlife Photo Contest.

So, what can you do about it? Well, you can provide nesting material of a wide variety of types that appeal to a wide variety of birds, attracting avians to your garden as surely as you would with a feeder.

You have two ways to provide nesting materials: You can grow plants that offer construction goods, or you can offer raw items.

Plants

Twigs

For birds looking for small twigs, almost any tree or shrub you plant will do. When small branches or twigs fall from a shrub and gather at its base, leave them for birds to pick up, preferably in lengths under 4 inches.

National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Joey Herron watched on as this house wren struggled—successfully—to bring this large twig into its nest.

Greenery

Some birds line nests with soft plant matter. You can provide this accoutrement by growing catkin-bearing trees and shrubs such as cottonwood, maple, mulberry, willows, poplar and beech.

Fluff

Many birds—hummingbirds spring to mind, but other songbirds as well—gravitate toward fluffy material, such as seeds with silky attachments designed to waft them on the wind or seed pods with a soft, hairlike covering. You can provide these items via cottonwood trees, lamb’s ear (ground cover), milkweed (also good for attracting monarch butterflies), honeysuckle and clematis.

Mud

If you have a pesky spot in your garden that refuses to grow anything but dirt, try adding a little water and see if you can grow mud. Mud is a favored nesting material for swallows and swifts and even the common robin.

Dry grass

When you trim your yard, perhaps you can find a spot in your garden for laying out a selection of dried grass stems cut 2 to 4 inches long. Grass is a common ingredient in songbird nests, used by species from native sparrows to robins.

Moss

If you have a shady spot in your yard, trying growing moss; with its velvety green growth, moss is a beautiful highlight for any moist garden and is a favored building material of some hummingbird species.

Raw Materials

Hair

Almost any kind of hair or wool will do. Dog hair is probably handiest for most people, especially when dogs are shedding in spring. Curry them, take the hair off the brush and put it in your garden (we’ll talk below about ways to distribute it). You can also add some of your own hair to the mix, or hair from a horse or goat or wool from a sheep, should you have access to such animals. Cut longer hair into 4- to 6-inch lengths. Hair works well for nesting, because it is durable and not inclined to soak up water. However, don’t use hair from animals that have been treated with pesticides, such as flea and tick spray. Remember Silent Spring? Then you get the picture.

Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Carol Matthai, who captured this image of an American robin collecting sticks and fluff for nesting material.

Snakeskins

Who doesn’t have a few snakeskins lying around going to waste? You don’t? Well, okay, but you never know when a snake might shed its skin in your yard. If you find one of these integumentary artifacts—looking like thin, almost transparent parchment—hang it in a tree or shrub where a bird may find it and apply it to its décor.

Strips of cloth

Cut cotton cloth, wool and other fabrics into strips about an inch wide and under 6 inches long and put the strips where birds will find them, such as on tree and shrub branches.

String and yarn

A favorite among birds; cut to about 3 to 6 inches long and hang with your cloth strips.

Don’t Use

Laundry dryer lint. The lint collected in your dryer filter may seem like ideal nesting material, but it isn’t. It will soak up water and may be steeped with chemicals unhealthy for birds, such as remnants of detergent and softener.

Delivery Systems

So you have a collection of wool, string, dog hair and strips of cloth. How do you do deliver it to birds?  My favorite method: Cram a mix of the items into a suet feeder, giving songbirds access to a smorgasbord of building basics. Or, fill the head of a kitchen whisk with the various materials and hang the whisk by its handle from a tree or shrub. Do-it-yourselfers might like to check out a design for an easily made wire holder.

Aside from bribing them into your garden with foodstuff, providing nesting material is one of the best ways to attract spring and summer birds. If you offer it, they will build.

This hummingbird has edged its nest, in Mesa, AZ, with fluffy material that may include spider webs. Photo by Kevin Blondelli.

This article was originally published on National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Promise.

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