Avian Apothecaries

Photo © plant4wildlife

By Lillian Ruiz, Cornell Class of 2019

Aromatic herbs such as lavender, sage, and mint are all commonly found in kitchens, gardens, and in soaps and lotions. The plants’ perfumes are intended to attract pollinators and repel herbivores. It is well-documented that aromatic herbs have medicinal properties. However, humans are not the only creatures to utilize medicinal plants; some birds are known to incorporate pungent plants into their nests.

Corsican Blue Tits use up to five different aromatic herbs in their nests. The herbs are strategically placed within the nest, with the average number of herbs increasing as the nesting cycle progresses. Researchers Lambrechts and Dos Santos (2000) experimentally removed herbs from nests. Within days, the birds had replaced them. And for good reason! The study went on to suggest that the “potpourri” of herbs can potentially kill or repel certain parasites and fleas, which in turn results in high body and feather growth rates in developing chicks.

European Starling Nest
European Starling Nest

Starlings build nests from a variety of materials. Green plants, including herbs, are added to the nest throughout the nesting period.

Natural Remedies

Not only are herbs beneficial for young, according to Gwinner (2012), female European Starlings prefer nests with herbs. Males display plants such as yarrow, hogweed, elder, and cow parsley to females prior to incorporating them into the nest. Starling nests with herbs have high incubation temperatures, providing an energy-savings to the female. Fledglings from nests with herbs also had a greater body mass and were overall healthier with fewer mites.

While we aren’t suggesting that you add fresh herbs to your nest boxes, it is fascinating to know that birds “self-medicate.” Perhaps this spring, consider planting aromatic herbs in your yard, such as yarrow. Sit back and observe your feathered friends. Are they intrigued by your herbaceous offering? If not, you can always use the plants in your kitchen or for aromatherapy!


References:

  • Gwinner, H. 2012. Male European starlings use odorous herbs as nest material to attract females and benefit nestlings in Chemical Signals in Vertebrates 12, 353–362, Springer Publishing, New York.
  • Lambrechts, M. M. and A. D. Santos. 2000. Aromatic herbs in Corsican blue tit nests: The potpourri hypothesis. Acta Oecologica 21(3): 175–178.

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One Comment

  1. Paula says:

    Good idea! I once witnessed an old nest on our porch light fixture being inspected by a House Finch pair. One day the rim of the nest was festooned with a “garland” of plants with tiny, yellow flowers. I don’t know what kind they were, unfortunately. The pair ultimately decided to move on; the wee flowers remained and even looked pretty for awhile after drying out.

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