Common tern eggs

Common terns lay their eggs in a scrape, a shallow depression on the ground with only a bit of nesting material. (Peter C. McGowan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A few weeks ago, I took advantage of the lovely spring weather to begin sprucing up my yard, neglected during months of cold and rain. Not many of my trees or shrubs had leafed out yet. Passing by my Virginia sweetspire bush, I noticed an empty nest, a leftover from a robin last year. It was an ordinary nest, cup-shaped and made of woven grasses.

As I moved around the yard, a small bird, an eastern phoebe, caught my attention as it flew back and forth from the nearby woods to a spot under my deck. A quick look confirmed that the bird was building a nest on a support beam. Unlike the robin’s, this nest was being created with tiny, carefully placed, pieces of moss and mud.

Baltimore oriole

A female Baltimore oriole guards her pendulum nest. (Ben Long Hair / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Birds are a diverse group of animals, differing in size, color, song, food preferences and habitat. Their nests are just as distinct, some simple and plain, others engineering marvels. Some nests are lined with plant fibers, feathers and other materials to cushion the eggs even as an adult moves around the nest. But they all serve the same purpose: to protect eggs and growing hatchlings.

Birds also choose the location of their nests to provide shelter from wind, rain and sun. And, because eggs and chicks are vulnerable to hungry predators, some birds choose a location that will hide or camouflage the nest with leaves, grass, moss and bark.

Basic Shapes & Inhabitants

  • Cup: This nest , the one most people are familiar with, differs in size, dimensions and depth, depending on the bird. These may be placed between or on branches, on ledges or even on the ground. Birds: robins, hummingbirds, yellow warblers and many perching birds.
  • Pendant: These elaborately woven nests, with side entrances, dangle from branches, providing protection from predators. Birds: Baltimore orioles.
  • Sphere: Almost completely enclosed, these round nests with a side entrance are well camouflaged. These nests are often on the ground or in low areas susceptible to predators. Birds: marsh wrens, winter wrens, ovenbirds.
  • Cavity: These nesters either hollow out their homes (or use abandoned nest holes hollowed out by other species) as well as natural holes in trees and poles. Some also use bird boxes. Birds: Eastern bluebirds, house sparrows, most woodpeckers.
  • Scrape: You might not even notice these shallow depressions. Some have a little nesting material, such as plants, pebbles or down. Birds: many shorebirds, such as terns, plovers, killdeers, American oystercatchers.
  • Platform: Sticks and twigs make up these bulky, relatively flat nests, although some have a shallow depression. Some birds may use the same nest year after year and continue to add material. Birds: ospreys, bald eagles, great blue herons and other wading birds.
Red-headed woodpecker

The red-headed woodpecker feeds its young in a hollow cavity nest. (Joe Kosack/Pennsylvania Game Commission)

If you come across an occupied nest, do not disturb the bird, eggs or hatchlings. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is illegal to take possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter or offer for sale, purchase or barter any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid federal permit.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs a citizen science project called NestWatch that provides information on how to monitor a nest safely and report observations. You can also find bird house plans that are designed for specific bird species in your region at

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

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