How do birds choose where to nest?

How do birds choose where to nest? Who takes the lead, the male or female?

Before building a nest, the pair of birds must decide where to build. But how do birds choose where to nest? We look at the many ways this happens.

We have all seen beautifully constructed bird nests in our backyard, on a tree, or in a nesting box. But have you wondered how birds choose a spot to nest in?

Choosing where to nest is called ‘nest site selection’ behavior. Different species go about this in various ways.

In many species, both partners work together to decide on the site. Let’s look at how varied nest selection and building can be.

Who Decides Where to Nest?

In some species, though, the pair work together, and the female takes a definite lead on the proceedings, i.e., Blackbirds, Turdus merula, and surprisingly the Red-necked Phalarope Phaleropus lobatus.

This is surprising because once the site has been chosen, the female lays her eggs and departs – leaving the male to do all the incubation.

blackbird female builds birds nest
Female Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) with building material for the nest

In other species, such as the Dunnock and Prunella modularis, the female chooses the site and builds the nest.

In contrast, with Blue tits, Parus caerulea, European Sparrows, Passer domesticus, Wrens, Troglodytes troglodytes, it is the male who chooses the site and then tries to attract the female to it.

The male Wren is a bit of a workaholic and builds several nets, normally 4 or 5, but up to 12. The female chooses one of these and the male uses another to roost in.

Just to prove that variety is the spice of life, Scottish Crossbills, Loxia Pinicola, show no definite patterns. In some couples, the male leads; in others, the female.

Material Collection and Building

Material collection and building can take many forms. From the simple sideways throwing of ground nesters to interweaving and stitching in tree dwellers, the variety is quite large.

Sideways Throwing & Building

These range from ‘sideways throwing’ – a simple single movement to get nesting material to the nest (this is limited to ground nesters only).

‘Sideways building’ is similar but involves more care in the placing of the material and results in a better-constructed bird’s nest.

Sideways throwing and sideways building are exhibited by many ducks, geese, gulls, petrels, pheasants, swans, and waders.

How Do Birds Choose Where to Nest
Duck nests are an example of sideways-throwing

Carrying Material to the Site

Physically carrying material to the nest site is the next step up and is carried out by all the remaining nest-building birds.

At its simplest, it is shown by penguins carrying a stone in their bills a few metres to the nest site. At its most complex it involves birds searching out for particular substances – such as cobwebs and feathers – to bring to the nest.

Once the material is brought to the site, it must be incorporated into the nest. For ground-nesting species, this can be as simple as just picking it up.


For tree-nesting species, it usually involves some degree of interweaving the individual items until they form some sort of matrix.

This can be fairly straightforward in the platform nests of pigeons but reaches great sophistication in the weavers – where the material is actually sewn together, and a considerable degree of manipulatory skill is needed.

A buffalo weavers nest with intricate interweaving patterns

Frequently Asked Questions

Do birds instinctively know how you build nests?

Research suggests that building nests is an acquired skill, even for birds.
They pick up the tips and tricks through years of practice and get better at it as they grow older.
Birds even try changing techniques and steps to see which is best for their needs.

Do birds build a nest in the same place?

No, most birds don’t build their nest in the same place every year.
While some larger birds, such as herons and eagles, might reuse their existing nests many times.
But normally, smaller birds will simply build a new nest every year after coming back.

Where do most birds make their nests?

There are ground nesters, and then there are tree nesters. Birds can also build nests high up on skyscrapers, on balconies, and in bushes.
Some birds can even build their nests under a bridge or a ledge. It all depends on where the bird can find a suitable spot.

Should I remove last year’s bird nest?

Most birds don’t reuse last year’s nests. So if you find an empty nest in your backyard or anywhere else in your house, and you are sure there are no eggs or hatchlings in it, simply remove the nest and thoroughly clean the place.

Wrap Up

Birds nest in many ways, and the process of building that nest is also as unique and individual to each bird as the birds themselves.

Whatever the type of nest, watching a bird build one is a fascinating and rewarding experience.

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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