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What Kind of Nest Materials are Best to Provide for Birds?

Photo © Holly Grant

By Holly Grant, Project Assistant

Some birdwatchers and nature lovers like to celebrate the beginning of breeding season by providing nesting materials for use by the birds that will soon become their neighbors. Each spring we see a similar uptick in questions regarding which type of nesting materials are best to provide, ranging from pet hair, to dryer lint, to leftover yarn or fabric scraps. As a crafter myself, I too wish I could use my hobby to help birds, but these items are not usually the best options. With this in mind, I’ll share our best tips below, which will help you to ensure the good health and safety of your local birds.

No Craft Zone

No Craft Zone

Yarn and other stringy items can be dangerous for birds and should not be given as nest material.

When providing nest materials, it’s important to consider what your local species naturally use in their nests. Chickadee and phoebe nests, for example, are easily identifiable because they incorporate lots of bright green moss. Bluebirds and robins, on the other hand, make nests out of grasses and straw. So, when you’re deciding what to place outside for the birds, we recommend sticking to natural items such as moss, twigs, leaves, lichen, rootlets, or untreated grass clippings (i.e., those that have not had fertilizer, pesticides or other similar chemicals applied). If you have chickens or other poultry, their feathers may also be used by birds such as swallows, wrens, or flycatchers, though be sure that the feathers have not had chemical treatments applied. You can gather these items and place them in an empty, clean suet cage, or simply provide them in piles in your yard or on a deck railing. Be sure to refresh the offerings after rain, or if you notice any mold or mildew growing on them.

Stuffed With Fluff

Stuffed With Fluff

Many warblers, like this Yellow Warbler, use fluffy plant fibers, such as those from cottonwood or cattails.

As I alluded to above, two of my favorite hobbies are birdwatching and knitting. While common advice used to say that yarn was safe to put out for birds, we now know that advice is outdated. Yarns are not always made of natural materials (e.g., acrylic or nylon), and even wool and cotton skeins may be treated with chemicals or dyes that can harm the delicate skin of nestlings. Stringy materials are also harmful because they can potentially wrap around the feet or neck of nestlings, either trapping the bird in the nest (preventing fledging) or restricting airflow. Hair from humans, pets, and/or livestock can be harmful to nestlings as well. Strands of hair are often infused with shampoos, dyes, flea and tick treatments, or other similar products, and if it’s longer than one inch, it poses the same risk as yarn and string. Hair, string, and yarn can also be choking hazards if mistaken for food. One other very popular idea is using dryer lint, but lint should never be provided for birds to use. The chemicals in detergents and the microplastics that may accumulate from synthetic fabric can be harmful. When considering these items, note that while you may have seen a bird using some in its nest before, it doesn’t always mean those items are safe. By making safer materials more readily available, you can contribute to the health and safety of your new “nest”-door neighbors.

Birds don’t need help from humans finding nesting materials, but if you do provide them, it’s best to go natural. The intent when providing nest materials is to try to mimic what these birds would use in nature, and keeping to that strategy will be one more step in the right direction for a successful fledge.

For more Do’s and Don’ts check out the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website.

[Note: This article was originally published in the NestWatch Digest for the 2020 nesting season.]

15 responses to “What Kind of Nest Materials are Best to Provide for Birds?”

  1. Dan Ballard says:

    Here’s a cute video of a black-crested titmouse plucking fur from a sleeping fox so it can be used in a nest.

  2. Marie Longo says:

    After I’ve harvested milkweed seeds, I save the floss for the following nesting season. I simply put it out in a suet feeder and it quickly disappears.

  3. Jerry Rosenkoetter says:

    In the 1970’s, I paddled under a bridge at Fern Ridge Reservoir outside Eugene, Oregon. There were countless swallow nests, and all of them made extensive use of monofilament fishing line as a lining inside their mud structure. I’m not recommending the practice–just marveling at it.

  4. Ginger Morrison says:

    Thank you for this information. I am doing this “all wrong” and plan to remove all my nesting materials. I think the most helpful comment in this article is “Birds don’t need help from humans finding nesting materials, …”.

  5. Gary Goodman says:

    I made the mistake of providing fabric-like material and one of the nestlings got caught, while we were out of town, and died hanging from the nestbox. Be careful!

  6. Ron Reist says:

    Hi Holly
    I am trying to enter new attempts for my bluebird nestbox trail, and like last
    year, I cannot enter the species. You gave my advise that worked then, however
    I cannot remember it. Any tricks you can share ?

  7. Dee says:

    When I cut the weeds from between the paving stones I just leave small mounds around the garden – as they dry the birds all come and take as they need. I don’t use any chemicals in the garden so the green/dried weeds as far as I am aware are acceptable to the birds. I have also noticed that starlins are targetting my lavender bush – again because I encourage wildlife into the garden I don’t worry about them taking what they need.

  8. D.L.P. says:

    I have a beautiful wreath made up of pinks, white, green fake tulips that I hang on my front door every Spring but I’ve had birds strip some of the tulips for their nests. I tried hanging silver metal spinner things to discourage them from getting to my wreath but just saw today that the little birds aren’t afraid. So I’ve takin down the wreath until next month, when they’ve built their nests. Is that enough time for my tulip wreath be safe?

    • Holly Grant, Project Assistant says:

      Hello, the nesting season lasts for a few months- view a US map here – some species start nesting later than other species, and many have more than one nest/brood per season. It’s hard to say if they would attempt to use your wreath later on in the season, but I suspect there would be a lesser chance of it because some birds may re-use their existing nests and more natural materials may be more readily available as vegetation grows in.

  9. We watched a bird collect dog hair from our dog. This was just hair that fell off the dog naturally. The bird picked up so much it looked like it had a mustache. Hopefully it didn’t hurt the bird but they will find things we have no control over.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology