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Curious Facts about Bird Nesting and Raising Chicks

By Chris Bensley and Peter Alden. Photos and Bird Cam

When you think of late spring and early summer, what comes to mind for you? Some may think of the bright colors of flowering plants, the lapping of waves at a beach, or the brilliance of fireflies at twilight. One of the most distinctive signs of this time of year is the morning chorus of birds.

Behind this joyous birdsong is a fascinating process of nesting and raising young chicks, with much of this activity hidden from sight.

In our previous article, we recounted how birds flirt and mate. Males tend to have bright and flashy feathers to show off their health and strength, and can have impressive dance moves to catch a mate’s eye — dives, wing flaps, head nods, and intricate steps.

In this article, we’ll explore when, where, and how bird nesting and the raising of baby birds.

When Do Birds Build Nests?

In the Northeast, bird nesting and hatching typically occur in the spring and early summer. Many bird species start building their nests as early as March or April, taking advantage of the warming temperatures and increasing daylight. By late April to early May, eggs are often laid, with incubation periods varying by species but generally lasting around two to three weeks. Consequently, many chicks hatch by late May or early June. During this period, parent birds are busy feeding and protecting their young, which fledge and leave the nest by mid to late summer, ensuring they have time to grow strong and prepare for migration or the upcoming winter.

Bluebird feeding chicks in nesting box

Yet it's a misconception to believe that birds only nest during the summer. In the southern parts of the United States, breeding can occur in any month. Certain birds, like great horned owls, can hatch as early as January in some areas of the southern U.S. Even in northern regions, raptor courtship can begin by late fall, with female owls, hawks, and eagles potentially incubating eggs by February.

Where Do Birds Build Nests?

Birds build their nests in a diverse array of locations. “Nesting is about finding a location that suits my needs and where I can protect my young” says Peter Alden. “Songbirds prefer to nest in trees and shrubs with dense foliage to conceal them and ground-nesting birds choose open fields and grassy areas where their eggs can be camouflaged from predators.”

This variety of nesting sites across New England reflects the adaptability of birds to different environments. “You’ll find cavity-nesting birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches using tree hollows” says Alden. “Swallows and raptors prefer rocky outcrops and riverbanks. If you live near a city, pigeons and sparrows can nest on patios, rooftops, and bridges“.

Tree nest with nuthatch feeding chick.

How Do Birds Build Nests?

Birds build their nests in many different ways, each one fitting their specific needs and surroundings. Take robins and finches, for example—they make those classic cup-shaped nests out of twigs, grass, and mud, then line them with feathers or moss for extra coziness. Woodpeckers and bluebirds go for tree holes, either digging them out themselves or using existing ones, which keeps their nests safe and dry.

European Starling with nest materials

Birds like killdeer and plovers keep it simple with ground nests, just scraping out a spot in the soil and adding a few pebbles or bits of vegetation for disguise. Eagles and ospreys, on the other hand, build big, strong platform nests from sticks and branches, usually up in tall trees or on cliff edges. Then there are the weaver birds and orioles, who show off their weaving skills by creating hanging nests from plant fibers. And let’s not forget swallows, which make mud nests stuck to vertical surfaces. Each of these nesting styles is perfectly suited to the bird’s environment and lifestyle.

How Long Does It Take for Bird Eggs to Hatch

The time it takes for bird eggs to hatch also varies depending on the species and their reproductive strategies, typically falling into two categories: altricial and precocial. Altricial species, such as songbirds, lay eggs that hatch relatively quickly, often within 10 to 14 days. These birds’ chicks are born helpless, blind, and featherless, requiring significant parental care and time to develop.

Precocial species, like ducks and shorebirds, have a longer incubation period, usually around 21 to 30 days. Their chicks are born more developed, with open eyes and downy feathers, able to move and feed themselves shortly after hatching. This distinction in hatching time reflects the different developmental needs and survival strategies of altricial and precocial birds.

Red-tailed Hawk Egg Hatches, Siblings Tussle In the Nest

Cornell Lab Cam

How Long Do Baby Birds Stay in the Nest?

The length of time baby birds stay in the nest varies widely depending on the species. Some, like baby ducks, plovers, and pheasants, are born with down feathers and can leave the nest to follow their parents within a few hours of hatching. Similarly, killdeer, quail, grouse, wild turkeys, and sandpipers are up and running shortly after birth.

Small songbirds, which develop rapidly due to their parents' constant feeding, typically leave the nest 8 to 12 days after hatching. Most baby birds spend at least 10 days in the nest before they are ready to fly. Species like Baltimore orioles, bluebirds, and rose-breasted grosbeaks usually fledge between two to three weeks of age. Larger birds, such as owls, hawks, and eagles, develop much more slowly; for instance, bald eagles may stay in the nest for up to 98 days, and California condors, one of the largest North American birds, might not leave the nest until they are six months old.

What foods do baby birds eat?

Baby birds primarily eat a diet of insects, worms, and other invertebrates provided by their parents. This high-protein diet supports their rapid growth and development. Some species may also feed their young regurgitated seeds, fruit, or nectar, depending on their dietary habits. As the chicks grow, their parents gradually introduce them to the foods they will eat as adults, ensuring they learn to forage and feed themselves.

Osprey with fish for chicks

How Long Does It Take for Baby Birds to Fly?

The time it takes for baby birds to achieve their first flight, known as fledging, varies widely among species. Small songbirds, such as sparrows and warblers, typically fledge about 10 to 14 days after hatching. These birds spend this time developing their flight feathers and building muscle strength under the watchful eyes of their parents, who continue to feed and protect them.

Larger birds of prey like eagles and hawks have a longer fledging period, often ranging from 6 to 12 weeks. During this time, they grow rapidly, gaining the necessary wing strength and coordination required for sustained flight. This extended developmental period reflects the greater size and complexity of these birds' wings and bodies. Overall, the duration from hatching to fledging is a critical phase in a bird's life, determining its readiness to explore the skies and fend for itself.

Learn all loon preservation at Squam Lake on our field trip: Discover Birds in the Squam Lakes Region | Join us on Fri, Jun 28, 2024, 1:30 PM

A nest camera shows a hopeful scene of a loon pair using nesting raft on Squam Lake. Photo credit: Loon Preservation Committee.


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