For the Birds Radio Program: Housewarming Gifts (Placeholder)

Original Air Date: May 6, 1996

What’s the best gift for a returning warbler or oriole? 4:04

Audio missing


Every spring, millions of tropical birds flap and glide all the way from Central and even South America to the Northland—the right place to raise babies. These “neotropical migrants” don’t eat seeds the way our winter birds do. Most specialize on insects, and some need fruits. In a few weeks, orioles and hummingbirds will pig out at sugar water and grape jelly feeders, and some insect-eaters are attracted to mealworms offered in small dishes, or to fruit flies that swarm about mesh onion bags filled with chunks of banana and melon. But the easiest way to attract tropical songbirds to a backyard isn’t with food up here in the land of bugs. What many birds really want is nesting material.

Birds incorporate a variety of materials into their nests. Hummingbirds and kinglets use appropriately tiny building blocks such as lichens, bound together with spider silk which not only cements the lichens but also stretches as growing nestlings need more space.

I don’t know how to offer lichens and spider silk but, fortunately, other birds are easier to please. Three- or 4-inch lengths of binder twine, untwisted and pulled apart, are perfect for robins, orioles, and many other nest weavers. Some birds prefer longer lengths, but string longer than 6 inches or so may strangle nestlings and even adults. Many birds will use bright white or colored yams, but these may make their nests conspicuous to predators–offer yarns and strings in natural fibers and colors. Cotton quilt batting is another excellent nest material that many birds use. It’s usually available only in white, but since birds weave it with natural materials, its small fibers don’t show up as noticeably as bright yams and strings. If you don’t have batting, cotton balls work just as well. For best results, tease apart and loosen the fibers before offering cotton.

Never set out dryer lint. It feels perfect to humans and birds alike, and some otherwise reliable books recommend it. But in this case appearances are more than deceiving–they’re deadly. When dryer lint gets wet it contracts and draws together, and then becomes stiff and brittle as it dries. Nests built with even a little dryer lint may disintegrate after the first rain.

Many songbirds incorporate horse, dog, and cat hairs into their nests. One year I watched a Chipping Sparrow pluck hairs from my sleeping golden retriever’s back and tail on four different afternoons. If you have a pet to brush, save handfuls of the fur for nesting birds.

A wide variety of birds literally feather their nests. Tree Swallows favor white gull feathers, and the survival of their babies depends directly on how many feathers are available to insulate them against excessive cold and heat. When you visit a beach, bring a plastic bag to collect small feathers for them.

A clean suet feeder is ideal for offering nest materials, from string and cotton balls to fur and feathers. Simply stuff it with whatever you have available and you’ll be pleased by the number of birds that accept these simple tokens of affection–the finest and most literal housewarming gifts we can provide our tropical friends. Providing nest materials benefits us as well, for the safety and warmth we give birds and their nestlings is returned to us in song and beauty. By warming their bodies, we warm our own hearts.