Hummingbird nests are amazing architectural creations that protect and nurture some of the world's most delicate birds. It may only be 5-8 weeks from the time nest construction begins until the maturing birds leave home, but observing hummingbird nests can be a rewarding and enchanting experience for birders.
Hummingbirds choose safe, sheltered locations for their nests, ensuring that their hatchlings are protected from sun, wind, rain, or predators. The most common nest locations are in the forked branch of a tree, along thin plant branches, or sheltered in dense bushes. Thicket-like areas or thorny bushes are especially preferred for the extra protection they provide. Hummingbirds are resourceful, however, and may build nests in unique locations including such crazy nesting spots as:
- Balanced on thin wires or clotheslines, even on strands of holiday lights
- Inside porch lamps or on top of lamps or outdoor security camera fixtures
- On the top of wind chimes, statues, or other garden decorations
- Inside a playing net, such as a basketball net or soccer goal net
- At the top of a cactus where the nest is protected by spines
- On top of small pipes, ceiling sprinkler fixtures, or other outdoor structures
When choosing a nest location, the female bird may land on it repeatedly to test the stability of the perch that, if chosen, must support her weight as well as the weight of the nest and her growing chicks. Because hummingbirds weigh so little, nearly any perch can be suitable as a nesting site.
The height of the nest varies greatly depending on the hummingbird species and what suitable nesting locations are available. Hummingbirds typically build their nests 3-60 feet above the ground, and the nest may be located up to a half mile away from preferred food sources if no closer sites are suitable.
Hummingbird nests are built entirely by the female bird. After mating, male hummingbirds do not have any part in choosing nesting sites, gathering nesting materials, or raising chicks. The female, however, will spend several hours a day for 5-7 days collecting materials to build her nest. The most common nesting materials found in hummingbird nests include:
- Bits of moss and lichen
- Plant down from thistles, dandelions, or cattails
- Spider silk
- Cotton fibers
- Small bits of bark or leaves
- Fuzz, fur, or hairs from leaves
These materials are woven together into a dense cup that is frequently decorated with moss, lichen, or other materials for camouflage. The edge of the cup is curved slightly inward to protect the eggs from tipping out in high winds, and spider silk used to bind the nest together gives it elasticity to enlarge as the hatchlings grow.
Exact nest dimensions vary depending on the species of hummingbird, the materials used to create the nest, and how the nest must be constructed to fit its location. Most hummingbird nests are 1.5 inches in diameter, roughly the size of a large walnut, ping-pong ball, or golf ball.
After the eggs are laid, the nest must stretch to accommodate the young birds’ growth. Hummingbirds typically lay two eggs that are roughly half an inch long, but once hatched the birds grow rapidly. The nest must accommodate their changing size since young hummingbirds will not leave the nest until they are nearly the size of adult birds and can fly on their own. This is unlike many other songbirds, which will leave the nest several days early as they learn to fly and continue to grow and gain weight. The spider silk used in a hummingbird nest’s construction gives it a stretchy quality to expand with the birds’ growth and movement. Furthermore, the female parent will frequently patch and repair the nest even after the chicks have hatched to ensure it stays durable as long as necessary.
Most hummingbird nests last for only a single brood of eggs or for one season if multiple broods are laid. If the location remains suitable, however, the female or her offspring may return year after year to rebuild the nest nearby or even on top of the remains of the previous nest. Old nesting material may be recycled for new construction, and the birds will often steal nesting material from other hummingbirds as well.
Respect the Nest
If you are fortunate enough to find a hummingbird nest, it can be tempting to watch it closely to see the magical growth of the tiny family. Like all nesting birds, however, female hummingbirds can be shy and skittish and may abandon nests if they do not feel secure. It is always best to keep your distance from a nest and enjoy it from afar rather than risk harming the nest or chicks by being too eager to see them.
Hummingbirds are not cavity-nesters and they will not use birdhouses, but they do build sturdy cup-shaped nests that can protect their tiny hatchlings. By understanding what hummingbird nests are made of and how they are built, birders can more easily recognize one of these unique homes and savor the chance to carefully observe a young hummingbird family.