Identify Wild Bird Nests With This Photo Gallery

Wild bird nest with cream-colored eggs with brown spots surrounded by wildflowers

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

Bird species use different building materials to create nests of various shapes and sizes. And the eggs they lay differ in shape, markings, colors, and size. These traits can help you identify the species even if the bird itself isn't present. For instance, rock pigeons build their loose platform nests in nearly any sheltered location, and American robin's eggs are a trademark blue color that many people can recognize. 

Here's how to identify some common bird species—including the house finch, northern mockingbird, mallard, black-capped chickadee, and more—by nest type and eggs.

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    House Finch Nest

    House Finch Nest
    John-Paul Stanisic / 500px / Getty Images

    The house finch is one of the most common backyard birds and can be found in nearly any habitat. Its nests show just as much adaptability. The cup-shaped house finch nest is constructed from twigs, grasses, and leaves. And it can be found in many locations, including in trees, shrubs, and cacti; on the ground; under house eaves; and in nesting boxes. House finch eggs are 0.75 to 0.8 inches long with a very pale blue color and small, infrequent spots that are typically concentrated on the larger end of the egg.

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    Vermilion Flycatcher Nest

    vermilion flycatcher nest

    Clinton & Charles Robertson / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    The eye-catching vermilion flycatcher is a favorite among birders because of its brilliant plumage, and its nests and eggs are just as lovely. The cup-shaped nest is sturdily constructed out of sticks, grass, rootlets, and similar materials. Plus, it is often decorated with bits of moss or lichen that help serve as camouflage. The eggs are approximately 0.75 inches long and are a creamy white with bold, thick blotches of lavender, brown, or gray.

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    American Robin Nest

    Robin's eggs
    Josh Jensen / Getty Images

    American robin eggs are among the easiest to recognize with their pale or medium blue color that typically lacks markings. On occasion, robin eggs, which are just over 1 inch long, can also be white or lightly speckled. An American robin’s deep cup nest is constructed from grass and mud and lined with finer grass. Robins build their nests in the crook of a tree, on a nesting shelf, or in nearly any sheltered location.

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    Northern Mockingbird Nest

    northern mockingbird nest

    Donald Hines / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    A northern mockingbird’s nest uses an array of unusual materials, including sticks, stems, and bits of fabric or string. The birds prefer to build deep cup nests between 3 and 10 feet off the ground. The eggs of a northern mockingbird are just 1 inch long with a bluish-green color and dark brown speckles or splotches.

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    Anna's Hummingbird Nest

    Annas Hummingbird nest with 2 eggs
    BirdImages / Getty Images

    All hummingbird nests are sturdily built, and the Anna’s hummingbird uses plant down, spider silk, and similar fine materials to construct its cup-shaped nest. These nests are often balanced in precarious locations, such as on thin branches or twigs, on a cliff ledge, or even astride a wire. A nest is then lined with feathers to gently cradle the 0.5 inch long, white, symmetrically oval eggs.

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    Mute Swan Nest

    Three eggs of a mute swan
    AlbyDeTweede / Getty Images

    Male and female mute swans work together to build a flattish, mound-shaped nest of assorted plant materials that is sparsely lined with feathers and down. Nests are often built on isolated islands or along shorelines near sources of water while still being concealed from both humans and predators. The eggs are 4.5 inches long and a light gray or blue color, though they can have brown or gray stains from marsh material.

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    Rock Pigeon Nest

    rock pigeon nest

    Simon Law / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    Just as rock pigeons are amazingly adaptable to urban habitats, so are their nesting preferences. Pigeons will build a loose platform of sticks, leaves, weeds, and grass in nearly any sheltered location, including gutters, building ledges, windowsills, abandoned boxes, and planters. Pigeons generally lay two white, unmarked eggs that measure 1.5 inches long. Unlike many birds, rock pigeons can breed at any time of year as long as there are sufficient resources for them to raise their young.

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    Killdeer Nest

    killdeer nest

    Courtney Celley/USFWS / Flickr / CC by 1.0

    A killdeer’s nest at first might seem to be no nest at all. Their nests can be simple depressions lined with pebbles or twigs, and some even have no lining. Because killdeers lay their eggs on open ground, their nests are highly vulnerable to predators. Parent birds will often feign injuries to draw predators away from a nearby nest with its light-colored eggs that have black and brown splotches. Eggs are usually 1.5 inches long and somewhat pointed, so they don't roll easily on flat ground.

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    Herring Gull Nest

    herring gull nest

    John Haslam / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    The herring gull prefers to lay eggs in sheltered ground or roof locations with minimal nest construction, though parent birds will line the nest site with weeds, grass, or seaweed. The eggs can vary from a gray or brown hue to a faint blue or green; they are marked with brown, lavender, or black streaks and spots. The eggs are around 2.6 to 3 inches long. Because they aren't in a deep nest, they are slightly pointed to minimize rolling.

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    Mallard Nest

    Mallard nest with eggs.
    jimkruger / Getty Images

    Because mallards are the most widespread duck in North America, they have learned to build nests nearly anywhere, including beneath shrubs, tucked into thickets, or even in planters and flowerbeds. Preferred locations are moderately concealed, and each nest is a shallow depression lined with assorted plant material, down, and feathers. The eggs are a buff, cream, or grayish color and measure 2.3 inches long.

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    Black-Capped Chickadee Nest

    black-capped chickadee nest

    OakleyOriginals / Flickr / CC by 2.0

    Black-capped chickadees are prolific nesters and have large broods. They are cavity-nesting birds and will use birdhouses as well as snags and other natural nesting holes, including reusing woodpecker nesting sites. The nests are lined with moss, feathers, and animal fur. The oval, 0.6-inch eggs are marked with brownish speckling.

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    European Nightjar Nest

    European nightjar nest

    NottsExMiner / Flickr / CC By 2.0

    All species of nightjars, including European nightjars, nest on the ground or any level, open surface, such as a flat rooftop. They use very little nesting material, and often the eggs are simply out in the open or in a very shallow depression dug into dirt or gravel. The oval, 1.25-inch eggs are white with brown and gray splotchy markings.

Identifying Nest Occupants

The easiest way to identify a bird’s nest is to identify the birds that build and use it. Since those birds are typically adult birds in their breeding plumage, their field marks are useful for proper and confident identification. It is best to use a spotting scope and keep a significant distance from the nest so as not to stress the birds—if the adults feel continually threatened, they may abandon their eggs or chicks.

Once the eggs have hatched, the parent birds will be very active feeding their chicks and may present good views for proper identification, and the chicks themselves can provide great identification clues. First, determining whether the chicks are altricial or precocial can narrow down the identification significantly, and other clues such as size and coloration can be useful.

Identifying Bird Nests

If the adult birds or chicks cannot be identified or if a nest is found without any birds in evidence, it is still possible to identify the nest itself. Consider the following characteristics when identifying bird nests:

  • Location: Where a nest is located gives a clue for the identity of its occupants. Is the nest in a cavity such as a birdhouse or hollow tree, on a cliff, in a low shrub, directly on the ground, or high in a tree?
  • Size: The size of a nest is a good clue for the size of the birds that use it. Larger birds generally have larger nests. Some small birds that regularly have large broods of five to six eggs or more may also build larger than expected nests to accommodate the space needs of their growing hatchlings.
  • Shape: Birds build different nest shapes, from simple shallow scrapes to cups to elaborate hanging pouches or cave-like structures. In addition to the overall shape of the nest, consider how wide or deep it is and where the entry point is for birds traveling back and forth—on the side, top, or even the bottom.
  • Materials: Birds use a wide variety of nesting materials, but most species prefer certain materials to construct their nest. A nest composed mainly of grasses and lined with feathers will be made by a different species than a nest that may be the same size and shape but is built of twigs and moss. Sticks, mud, yarn, pebbles, trash, snakeskin, spider silk, lichen, rootlets, and fur are other common nesting materials.
  • Construction: Exactly how a nest is constructed can be an indicator of the bird that built it. Some birds build loose, haphazard nests, while others have tightly constructed architectural wonders. Examine how the nest is attached to a tree or bush and note whether it is decorated with lichen, moss, bits of leaves, or other materials to serve as camouflage.
  • Eggs: If the nest contains eggs (use a mirror on a long handle to see into a nest above your head), the shape, size, color, and markings of the eggs can also be great clues for the nest’s identity.

More Identification Tips

While bird nests can be just as distinct and unique as the birds that build them, they can still be hard to identify and there may be only very subtle differences between the nests of two very different species. If you’re having trouble identifying a particular nest:

  • Consider the breeding range of birds that could possibly build it. While vagrant birds can occasionally nest well outside their expected breeding territory, the nest is far more likely to belong to a familiar species.
  • Note when the nest is actively in use and how that timing corresponds to the breeding season of different birds. Some species nest very early in the season while others nest very late, but be aware that earlier nesters may also have multiple broods later in the season.
  • Visit a local nature center, wildlife refuge visitor center, or similar facility to check if any exhibits of common local nests are available to study. Seeing positively identified nests up close can give you a better understanding of how to identify nests and make sense of each wild nest you spot.