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Attracting Birds with Nest Material

Most birds build some kind of structure to contain their eggs and, in many cases, their growing youngsters. A bird's nest may be as simple as a depression on the ground such as made by a nighthawk, it may be a hole in a tree excavated by a woodpecker, or it may be as elaborate as the pouch-like nest woven by an oriole. The most familar type of nest, though, is a cup-shaped structure made of vegetation. Often, the outer layers are of coarse material, and there is a lining of softer or finer material. Depending on the species, cup-nesters may hide their nests in trees or shrubs, build them on the ground, or, like the familiar Eastern Bluebird, place them in nestboxes or tree holes.

If your yard has safe nest sites and adequate construction material, it will be more attractive to birds—even those that normally don't visit feeders. See our Landscaping for Birds section to learn about nest sites, and read on to find out what nesting material to provide and how to offer it.

Nest material to offer

Ideally you should provide nest material naturally by leaving or creating wild, natural areas on your property (perhaps hidden from your neighbor's view) where plants can grow into thickets, and leaves and twigs can fall and not be raked up immediately. This untidy debris gives a variety of material for the birds to pick through when they are building nests. They may even pick through your compost pile looking for suitable nest material.

Alternatively, you can put out concentrated stashes of nest material. It can be natural materials like straw, small sticks, and twigs, or manmade materials such as yarn and string. Try putting out any combination of the following:

  • Dead twigs
  • Dead leaves
  • Dry grass
  • Yarn or string—cut into 4- to 8-inch pieces
  • Human or animal hair (especially horse hair)
  • Fur (e.g. dog or cat fur)
  • Sheep's wool
  • Feathers
  • Plant fluff or down (e.g. cattail fluff, cottonwood down)
  • Kapok, cotton batting, or other stuffing material
  • Moss
  • Bark strips
  • Pine needles
  • Thin strips of cloth, about 1 inch wide by 6 inches long
  • Shredded paper

Among the strange materials birds occasionally use in their nests are snake skins, plastic strips, cellophane, and aluminum foil. Many small birds use spider webs to glue nest material together. Swallows, phoebes, and American Robins use mud to construct their nests. You might consider creating or keeping a muddy puddle in your garden for them.

What about dryer lint? Some people include this as suitable bird nesting material. Others recommend against it because it is porous and dries out poorly if it's rained on in the nest. Still others warn that wet dryer lint dries into a hard mass, providing poor nest insulation, however this may happen only if it contains laundry detergent or fabric softener residue. More information is needed before we can recommend offering dryer lint.

How to offer nest material

  • Place nesting materials, such as twigs and leaves, in piles on the ground—other materials, too, if they won't blow away.
  • Try putting fluffy materials, hair, or fur in wire-mesh suet cages, or in string or plastic mesh bags, attached to tree trunks, fence posts, or deck railings. The birds will pull out the material through the mesh holes.
  • Push material into tree crevices or drape it over vegetation.
  • Put material into an open-topped, plastic berry basket (such as strawberries are sold in).
  • Some manufacturers sell spiral wire hangers especially for putting out nest material. (One type looks like a oversized honey-dipper.)