Empty Nests? Look Again!

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Empty Nests? Look Again!
by: Kim High, Metroparks Master Interpreter

Last summer’s songbird nests are much more visible this time of year.  As you winter the Towpath, have fun observing the differences in nest sizes, shapes and materials.

Near meadows along the trail, you might find nests made by American goldfinches. Their nests often remain intact throughout the winter since they are one of our latest nesting songbirds—not beginning nesting season until August. Goldfinch nests aren’t too high off the ground-- easily seen at your eye-level--and they’re about baseball-sized. If one is close by the trail, peek into it, and you will discover that goldfinches often line their finely-woven grass nests with soft thistle down. Thistle is an important plant for goldfinches because its seeds are used for food and its down for nest building.

The former nests of American robins are also quite easy to spot. A former robin’s nest usually will be found higher off the ground, in young trees or thickets along the Towpath, and it’s a slightly bigger nest that is more comparable to a softball. Robins are the potters of the bird world, sculpting the insides of their nests with mud—a material that is plentiful in floodplain areas like the Towpath.

Birds of summer are no longer using these abandoned nests, but be sure to check them for signs of other animals. Our native mice sometimes use old birds’ nests as winter shelters or feeding stations. Former birds’ nests inhabited by mice often have seeds and berries cached inside of them, and will be layered with soft plant material added for warmth. Even if they are out of reach to look into, notice how many of last summer’s songbird nests you can find as you winter the Towpath, and notice whether or not they are snow-covered on top. Lack of snow cover might be a clue that some other small creature recycled this nest for its own u