In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our February 2016 issue:
Can you recommend any specific plants besides grasses that I can grow and leave standing into spring and that birds will use for nesting material? It seems more natural than putting out yarn in baskets. — Adrienne Boone, Kansas City, Missouri
Descriptions of the nests of most songbirds speak in only general terms about the plant materials used: twigs, grasses, bark strips, and plant down. Many birds aren’t too fussy regarding plant species, as long as the items are of the appropriate size, texture, and strength.
However, I have observed that birds favor a few plants. The peeling bark of old grape vines is used frequently. Likewise, birds seek out plants with especially fibrous stems. I leave last year’s pokeweeds and milkweeds standing well into spring because I’ve seen orioles and robins peeling strips from the stalks.
Plant down is used to line the nests of many species. Cottonwood, willow, and thistles are common sources. I like to provide piles of small twigs next to my brush pile, since I find it exhausting to watch wrens struggle to enter a nest box with twigs too big to fit. Finally, whenever I pull out plants or saplings with wiry roots, I put them on my brush pile where birds can access the fibers.
Several researchers have investigated birds’ use of green plant materials that help repel insects or ectoparasites in nests. Plants that may have this effect include yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, mints, lavender, and fleabanes. Overall, it’s best to offer a diversity of plants, thereby giving birds plenty of choices for nest materials, and to provide optimal places to nest and forage.
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.
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