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: five bird nests from key plus additional nests if available (from a licensed owner), 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: five bird nests from key (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 from the Bird Nest Set 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.

Materials: Bird Nest Set: five bird nests from key (from a licensed owner); for each small group: Bird Nest Flow Chart or Bird Nest Key, magnifying lenses, rulers, pencils, paper.

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: five bird nests from key (from a licensed owner), 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, stage.

Objective:  To observe nest photos and sort into groups based on their design features.

In small groups, have children look at photos in the Nest Photo Set, showing a variety of nests, from the simplest scrape in the ground to elaborate hanging nests. Have children sort these photos into groups based on their design. As a review, have children identify the different nest types using the Bird Nest Match drawings.

Materials: Nest Photo Set: examples of different nest styles, Bird Nest Match drawings.

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

Have the children work in small groups to selecting a nest site around the schoolyard, e.g. in shrubs, on fence posts, in the tall grass, etc. Explain that each group will be working together to construct a nest sturdy enough to hold one ‘egg’ (such as a small stone, plastic egg, etc.) for each member of the group. Describe the possible nesting materials they may gather outdoors 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. You may want to supply some additional natural nesting materials if the supply in your schoolyard is limited. Encourage children to work collaboratively; take turns collecting nesting material, contributing nest design ideas, and weaving. When they have all finished building, visit the nests 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.

Materials: natural nesting material such as dried leaves, grasses, cattails, irises, or lilies, pliable evergreen branches; small stones, plastic eggs, etc.


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?

Bluebird Nest Boxes: Use Bluebird Nest Box Plans to assemble and build a home for bluebirds or other cavity nesters. Prepare the wood for building houses ahead of time by pre-cutting pieces and pre-drilling holes. When the houses are assembled, bring the children 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 likely sites to mount the birdhouses, making sure they are at least 100 feet apart. Then have the children observe who moves in.

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