A Lesson in Nest Building

For an illustrated version, see pages 12-14 in The Environmentor, vol 2 #4.

A Folktale*

One spring a very long time ago, the birds came together to learn how to make safe nests for their babies.

Mr & Mrs Robin, the instructors, started with the basics. “First you need to find a good place for your nest.”

“Thanks, that’s all we need to know,” said the Ducks and the Quails, leaving the class. To this day, they just scrape out a spot on the ground and line it with feathers.

“No,” said the Robins, “you need to build up your nest with twigs and sticks.”

“Twigs and sticks! That’s all we need to know,” said the Ospreys and Eagles, flying off to start collecting sticks. To this day, they build big jagged platforms in cliffs or trees.

“But plain sticks will be so uncomfortable!” the Robins called after the raptors, too late. They sighed and went on with the lesson. “See, you line the twigs with mud, making a neat cup. Then you tuck in a mattress of soft dry grass.”

The song birds and Hummingbirds watched carefully. “Thanks, that’s what we need to know.” And that’s how they still build their cup nests.

Mr & Mrs Penguin didn’t even come to class. “Who needs a nest? Our feet will do.”

NOTE: The folktale is not just about bird nest types, but also a caricature of impatient people who won’t wait for complete instructions!

*SOURCE: My American adaptation is based on “Magpie teaches nest making” (A2271.1.1 ) a folktale from England that uses English birds, of course. I had help from the Internet to find out what types of nests our native birds make. (We don’t have penguins, but kids like them.)

Science facts:

Different bird species’ nests are adapted to the hazards of their habitat, materials available, etc. One style certainly wouldn’t fit them all! The amazing thing is that even the most elaborate architecture doesn’t seem to require lessons. When nesting time comes, the adult birds proceed by instinct.

Experienced birders can often identify a species just by looking at the nest. What other nesting habits do you know about?

It can be fun for you and your children to invent what other birds might say if they were in the story above. For instance:

The Woodpeckers watched the lessons from a distance. “Dry bedding sounds like a good idea,” they said, “but we’d rather put it in a hollow tree.”

“Hollow sounds good to us, too,” grumbled the Burrowing Owls, “but we prefer to live underground.” They moved into a prairie dog town.

The Orioles said, “We have our own ideas! We can weave a hanging nest to rock our babies to sleep.”

From The Earthteller, Fran Stallings