birdnote q&a: the biggest bird nests

Great blue heron nest by Tom Grey

THEY’RE THE McMANSIONS of bird nests, though I suppose not necessarily as luxurious as that as just plain big—too big to fit into the first half of our recent Q&A story on the topic of nest-building. The nests of eagles, herons and other big birds require a space of their own, in nature and here on the website. Once again, Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote public-radio program is our expert guide.

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily.

“Location, location, location,” says Ellen, whatever size the bird. “It’s important when people choose a place to raise a family, and every bit as important to a bird.” (This archived BirdNote show explains just how much so.)

Bald eagle and nestling by Tom GreyQ. How does a bird with a wingspan of more than 6 feet, such as an eagle, who also breeds relatively early in the season, even manage to have an adequate nest ready in time?   

A. Bald Eagles (above photo, with a nestling) use the same nest year after year, refurbishing and adding to it all the time–like this. It’s hard to miss the huge nests of large raptors, high in a tree. Eagles have been known to carry sticks more than a mile to their nest—even breaking dead branches off trees for the purpose. Their nests are among the biggest of all birds—5 or 6 feet wide, and up to 4 feet tall, shaped flatter or more cylindrical or conical to fit the tree they’re building in, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Golden eagles prefer cliffs as their nesting location, Cornell says, but trees will do—or even the ground or manmade structures such as electrical towers. More about raptor breeding.

Q. Do other big birds reuse their nests?

A. The osprey—the only North American raptor who can dive into water to catch its dinner of live fish–is another bird that builds a large and elaborate nest and reuses it year after year. These birds happily nest on manmade towers and structures, including cell-phone towers, occasionally to the dismay of the tower owners (the whole story on osprey nests). Ospreys are migratory birds and because of that, the birds–and their nests–are protected.

Peregrine falcon in manmade nestbox, by Ruth TaylorAnother bird right at home on a manmade structure–in this case a skyscraper, rooftop, or bridge–is the peregrine falcon. In nature, a ledge partway down a cliff might be be the preferred nest site, but in many cities, falcon fanciers have placed nestboxes full of gravel on building ledges or under bridges (above, an adult with eggs in such a manmade box). The gravel resembles the simple scrape, a depression a mere 2 inches deep, that peregrines like to create.

Great Horned Owls raise their families on cliff ledges, in hollows of trees, or in nests abandoned by other large birds.  Barn Owls are often found nesting in manmade boxes, the stars of many a webcam!  (Many smaller owls nest in tree cavities, including old woodpecker holes.)

Q. I love to see prehistoric-looking great blue herons flying by here, or hunting in nearby ponds. But where do these big birds make their nests?

A. Now, here’s a strange thing. Picture a bird nearly four feet tall, with long legs perfectly designed for wading (as in the top photo). This stately creature eats fish and frogs and other prey found in shallow water and in fields. It’s a Great Blue Heron! And where does this usually solitary, elegant wading bird nest? High in a tree, in a large stick nest, along with many others of its kind, like this.  (You can follow a nesting pair courtesy of Cornell’s webcam.)

how to get birdnote

birdnote logo

FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote:

(Photos courtesy of Tom Grey [eagle and heron] and Ruth Taylor [peregrine]; used with permission.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
    1. margaret says:

      I came upon on as I turned into a big curve in a nearby road — and suddenly there he was, landing in the middle of the road, just ahead of me! He hadn’t seen me coming, nor I him. And occasionally they find my backyard water gardens when flying overhead, and land here. Because I love my frogs and fish, I’m not very welcoming. (My pools are tiny…not heron sized!) :)

  1. Judy says:

    I’ve been eagle nest watching live online for a couple of years. I started with the Decorah, Iowa nest.. it was fascinating. You see the parents adding sticks and rebuilding the nest (which is huge.. 6′ around usually, weighing a couple of tons), incubating the eggs, the hatching and the growth of the eaglets until they fledge. Some cameras have 24 hour coverage, and you really see the unfiltered way they live..what they eat, how the siblings and parents behave (each have their own personalities), can be very funny at times! You also see some hardships and tragedies, but there are more successes. There are many live eagle nest cams to watch..all over the country and world…and other bird nests, such as hawks, falcons, owls, ospreys, turkey vultures to observe. Anyone can google, “bird nests cameras live” for example, or a specific bird, like “eagle nest live camera, owl nest live cameras” is another example. It’s pretty educational and fun. It’s great to get kids to watch, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.