How To NestWatch

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Photo © Al Tuttle

Code of Conduct

Please exercise extreme caution and responsibility when monitoring nests to ensure the safety of birds, nests, and nest contents; observations of nests should never jeopardize the well-being of birds. The NestWatch Code of Conduct will help you minimize the three potential risks that all nest monitors must be careful to avoid:

  • Accidental harm to a nest
  • Parental desertion of a nest
  • Attracting predators to a nest

Learn about birds

Birds are diverse and fascinating creatures! Learning about their nesting behaviors will increase your ability to find nests and monitor them safely and effectively. Start by browsing the many resources available on our website, as well as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds and the Birds of the World online resource (subscription service).

Plan and prepare

Make a plan to conduct observations of nests every 3-4 days following the NestWatch protocol. If you cannot monitor that frequently, weekly nest checks can still yield valuable data. Most successful songbird nests last about 30 days, so plan to visit a nest about 5-10 times. The first time you encounter an active nest, accurately record its location in your field notes and draw a picture of its location to avoid long searches on subsequent visits. Prepare materials, such as datasheets, notebooks, mobile app, etc., before your nest visits to minimize time spent in the immediate vicinity of the nest. Nest visits should last no longer than 1 minute. Clipboards are an excellent way to keep your datasheets organized.

Collect data carefully

In order for your data to be added to the NestWatch database, it must be accurate and precise. You will need to report the location of the nest, the species, and the contents of the nest each time that you visit. You can also record a summary of the nesting attempt once it is complete. The more details that you provide, the better your observations can help researchers understand threats facing breeding birds.

Choose an appropriate time to visit nests

Generally you should AVOID visiting nests under the following conditions:

  • Do not check in the early morning. Most birds lay their eggs in the early morning so plan on visiting nests in the late morning or afternoon. Also, most adults will temporarily leave the nest when you are near, and eggs and young nestlings can become cold quickly if left alone in the early morning.
  • Avoid nests during the first few days of incubation. If necessary, observe nests from a distance and approach only when the female leaves the nest.
  • Do not approach nests when young are close to fledging. When the young are disturbed during this stage, they may leave the nest prematurely. Young that fledge prematurely usually do not stay in the nest despite attempts to return them, and their survival rates away from or outside the nest are low. When young birds are fully feathered and very alert, only observe the nest from a distance.
  • Avoid nests during bad weather. If it is cold, damp, or rainy, postpone checking nests until another day. Checking nests during this time can be very stressful for birds.
  • Do not check nests at or after dusk, when females may be returning to the nest for the night. The exception to this would be owls, which typically leave the nest at dusk.

Search carefully

It is critically important that monitors avoid damaging nest sites. Nests that have yet to be discovered are particularly vulnerable. When searching for nests, move slowly through dense foliage, being careful not to dislodge any nests. The nests of ground-nesting birds, such as Killdeer, Ovenbirds, Bobolinks, and many waterbirds, are difficult to see, so tread lightly and be cautious around potential ground nest sites.

Be wary of nest predators

Avoid leaving tracks that can direct predators to nests. Nest predators are everywhere—on the ground, in vegetation, and in the air—and many are smart enough to watch you! Be careful that predators such as cats, crows, and jays are not following you. Minimize damaging or trampling vegetation that could expose nests.

Minimize disturbance at the nest

It is important not to startle a bird as you approach the nest; this may cause it to accidentally knock out eggs or young when it flies off. Before approaching the nest, try to see if a parent is sitting on it. Whenever possible, wait a few minutes to see if the bird leaves on its own. If they do, this is the ideal time to check the nest. If the bird is to be flushed, give it ample time to slip off quietly by rustling branches or making noise during your approach. Nest boxes should be tapped first, then tapped again when open to allow the parent to slip away before you stare directly into the box. If a sitting bird does not leave on its own, do not force it off the nest. In this case, you will need to come back later. Remember to keep each visit brief, and wait until you are well away from the nest before recording your field notes.

Do not handle birds or eggs without proper permits

Do not handle young birds or eggs. Eggs can be easily cracked or small nestlings injured. Small nestlings are remarkably helpless and may not be able to crawl back into the nest cup if displaced, even inside of a nest box. Children monitoring nests should always be under the supervision of an adult. If you wish to band birds or handle nest contents, you need to possess the proper federal and/or state or provincial permits.

Don't Leave a Dead-end Trail

Don't Leave a Dead-end Trail

Don’t leave a dead-end trail

Whenever possible, take a different route away from the nest site than the route you took to reach it. Walking to the nest and back along the same path leaves a dead-end trail that can lead predators directly to the nest.

Respect private land

If you wish to search privately owned land for nests, first gain permission from the landowner. Remember that you are asking for a favor. Explain your purpose; many landowners will probably be interested to learn more about what you are doing and what birds are nesting on their property. Treat landowners and their property with the utmost respect, and follow any special requests that they make.

Understand the laws protecting migratory birds

Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of the United States and the Migratory Birds Convention Act of Canada, it is illegal to possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the authority of a valid permit. Additionally, many species are protected by other state, provincial, and local laws. Therefore, in most instances it is illegal for you to touch or otherwise physically disturb an active nest or its contents.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology