Feathering the Nest – Activities

It is illegal to collect birds’ nests, feathers, or eggs without federal and state collecting permits.

After handling nests, be sure to wash hands.

FOCUS: Although all birds’ nests are made to contain and conceal the eggs, the design, location, and construction of nests varies greatly. Nests are built in many different places and they are built with many different materials. Some are simple scrapes and others are intricate woven baskets. Each nest is characteristic for its species, and every bird knows by instinct how and where to build it.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about bird nests.

Set out a variety of nests, ask children to take a close look, and ask what they wonder about them.

Materials: Bird Nest Set, magnifying lenses.

Objective: To investigate a variety of birds’ nests and create an inventory, documenting the materials used in their construction.

Ahead of time, place the five nests from the Bird Nest Set at five separate stations. Label each station with the letter listed on the paper tag attached to each nest.  Have the children work in small groups. For younger children, an adult should work with each group to collect data on each of the nests. For older children, provide each group with magnifying lenses, rulers, paper, pencil and clipboard to use for making observations, taking measurements, and recording nest data.  To begin, assign each group to a different nest and have them examine and draw it as a journal activity, measuring and recording size and shape and documenting materials used in construction. Then have groups examine the other nests, station by station, noting similarities and differences. Afterward, compare and contrast the materials found in each nest and discuss similarities and differences. Analyze and interpret this nest data to consider each bird’s size and its possible habitat. Which nest was probably made by the biggest bird? The smallest? Where might each nest have been located?

Materials: Bird Nest Set (from a licensed owner), magnifying lenses, rulers, paper, pencils, clipboards.

Objective: To use a scientific key to identify five birds’ nests.

This activity works best following the Nest Detectives activity. Provide each small group with one nest and a dichotomous Bird Nest Key. Have children examine their nest, answering the questions in the Bird Nest Key to try to determine what kind of bird made it. Once they decide the identity of each nest maker, they will write that bird species’ name on their form next to the letter that matches the nest tag. If time allows, have groups rotate around the stations until they have had a chance to identify each nest. Afterward, have the children gather in a circle and place the nests, one at a time, in the center. Working together as a class, answer the Bird Nest Key questions for each nest to decide the nest maker’s identity. Discuss any difficulties they encountered using the key along the way. For younger children, try using the Bird Nest Flow Chart instead of the Bird Nest Key to identify the nests.

Optional: confirm each nest’s identity by having the matching bird puppet describe its nest using the That’s My Nest! scripts.

Materials: Bird Nest Set; for each small group: Bird Nest Key, magnifying lenses, rulers, pencils; optional That’s My Nest! Scripts and/or Bird Nest Flow Chart.

THAT’S MY NEST! (Grades K-2)
Objective: To listen actively to obtain information needed to match bird puppets with their nests.

Have children sit in a circle with the labeled collection of nests from Nest Detectives in the center. Using the That’s My Nest! scripts, have each bird puppet appear in turn and describe its nest to the children. Ask the children to call out the letter of the nest they think belongs to each bird based on the information provided. Then place the correct bird puppet by its matching nest.

That’s My Nest Scripts

American Robin:  I build a large, round, sturdy nest with mud and weed stalks. I shape the mud into a nice bowl just the right size for me, and then add soft grasses inside and out.

Northern Oriole:  I weave a deep pouch out of plant fibers and hang it by its rim from a drooping branch so it can sway in the breezes like a cradle in the tree tops. I line it with soft hair or grasses. I might even weave in some yarn or string if I find some I like.

Eastern Phoebe:  I use balls of mud to attach my cup-shaped nest to its perch so it won’t be blown off. It’s made of grasses and other plant stalks and covered all over with green moss so it blends into the background. Then I line it with soft hair, feathers or grass.

American Goldfinch:  I nestle my little cup-shaped nest in the crotch of a shrub and attach it to three or four upright branches. I line it with the softest thistle down or cattail fluff so it will be cozy and soft for my young.

Red-eyed Vireo:  I weave a tight little cup nest out of plant fibers and I use spider silk to attach the rim to a forked branch. I decorate my nest on the outside with birch bark curls and maybe some paper from a wasp’s nest.

Red-winged Blackbird:  I build my large cup-shaped nest out of cattails, reeds, sedges and grasses among the cattails in a swamp. I use milkweed fibers to attach it to the cattails and keep it above water.

Materials: Bird Nest Set (provided), That’s My Nest! scripts, matching bird puppets.

PUPPET SHOW “Birds of a Feather”
Objective: To meet some common birds and learn about differences in their nest designs.

Perform the puppet show or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. What was notable about the nest design, materials used, and nest location for each of the birds in the puppet show?

Materials: puppets, script.

Objective:  To view examples of some different types of nests and the birds that built them.

Show pictures of a variety of nests from the simplest scrape in the ground nests to elaborate hanging nests, and if possible pictures of the birds that made them. As a review, have children identify each of the nests in the Bird Nest Match poster.

Materials: slides or Power Point presentation, projector, screen, Bird Nest Match poster and key.

Objective:  To model nest construction and experience the challenges faced by birds when building nests.

Have the children work in small groups and give each team a sturdy forked branch. (You can provide younger children with berry baskets or paper bowls instead of a branch.) This activity can also be done outside, with each small group selecting a nest site around the school yard, e.g. in shrubs, on fence posts, in the tall grass, etc. Explain that each group will be working together to construct a nest on a branch, sturdy enough to hold one egg for each member of the group. Describe the possible nesting materials they may gather outdoors and/or set out a collection of nesting material inside or around the schoolyard. Explain that only one “bird” at a time may collect nesting materials, and they can only pick up one “beakful” (using just the index finger and thumb of one hand as their “beak”) at a time. Encourage children to work collaboratively; take turns collecting nesting material, contributing nest design ideas, holding the branch, and weaving. When they have all finished building, gather in a circle and have each group share their nest design and construction, noting key structural details, any construction challenges they faced, and their solutions. Then evaluate each nest by carefully placing one egg per group member into their nest. Display the nests around the classroom or disassemble them and place useful building materials outside for real birds to use.

Materials: sturdy forked twigs, one per group; nesting material such as dried grasses, cattails, irises, or lilies; a bag of foil-covered chocolate eggs or small stones. optional: manmade materials such as yarn, string, raffia, pipe-cleaners, shredded paper.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Bluebird Nest Boxes (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To follow directions to assemble and build a home for a bluebird or other cavity nester and record data about its use by birds or other animals.

Ahead of time, prepare the wood for building several bluebird houses. Depending on the amount of time available, you may wish to cut the pieces ahead of time and pre-drill holes for screws. Have children work in small groups to assemble the houses. They may nail or screw the pieces together following the instructions on the Bluebird Nest Box Plans.

When the houses are assembled, bring the children outside to install them. Discuss bluebirds’ preferences (east- or south-facing, near a mowed field or lawn, hole four to five feet off the ground, nearby bushes for young to fly when they fledge but at least 100 feet from wooded area). Choose some likely sites to mount the birdhouses, making sure they are at least 100 feet apart.

Have children watch the boxes for birds investigating or nesting in them. This may take a few hours to a few days or weeks. Have students record daily or weekly observations. Why is there so much competition for nesting cavities?

Materials: Bluebird Nest Box Plans, six feet of 1″x6″ board for each house, saw, nails or screws, drill, 1 ½” butterfly bit.


For the Birds:  Have the children poke pieces of yarn, string, dryer lint, or batting into an old mesh onion or produce bag. Keep nest material pieces shorter than 3″ to avoid entangling nestlings. Dog, cat, horse, human, or rabbit fur combings and clippings are a great favorite of nest builders. Hang this nesting material bag outside on a nearby tree and watch to see if any birds come to take pieces. Which textures or colors are most popular? Go on a nest hunt and see if you can find a nest that contains some of the materials you provided?

Draw a Nest: Have children draw or paint a picture of their favorite bird on its nest. Help students find out where the bird builds its nest, what type of nest it uses, and what kind of habitat it might choose for nesting. Could they find this bird near where they live?

Nest Search: Take the children on a walk around the school grounds or through the neighborhood to look for nests or potential nesting sites.   How would these nesting sites be different in spring and summer, and how would that help the birds? What nesting materials might birds use?

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