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Safe Bird Nesting Material

OK, who hasn’t seen the suggestion to put scraps of yarn, twine, string and even human hair out for the birds during nesting time? In principle, it sounds like a great recycling idea. Make use of the little bits and pieces that would normally be thrown out and help the birds make sturdy and comfy nests for their eggs and hatchlings. And, how fun is it to see bits of color in the nests?

Our neighborhood birds never seemed too interested in our offerings. Thank goodness they were so much smarter than us!

Unsafe Bird Nesting Materials

A Facebook posting from the folks at Carolina Waterfowl Rescue quickly educated me that this act of kindness is anything but kind to our feathered friends.

Our good intentions have led to some horrendous outcomes.

Every year, the rescue organization takes in baby songbirds that have terrible injuries from these good intentions. The fibers may tangle around the bird’s legs, neck or wings. They act like a tourniquet and cut off the blood flow and cause injuries that can lead to loss of limbs and even death.

Birds and other animals can choke and have internal obstructions from eating the string.

If that’s not enough reason to not offer string-like fibers as bird nesting material, I have seen several mentions of birds getting trapped in their nests. The fibers get wrapped around the birds and literally tie them into the nest.

Think those fuzzy bits of drying lint would make a great option? That too is a bad idea. When it gets wet, it loses its shape and can leave holes in the nest. Additionally, the lint dust is bad for birds. And, if that wasn’t enough to keep you from using dryer lint for bird nesting material, think about the bleaches, laundry softeners and other chemicals that we all use to keep our clothes clean. Doubtful any of that stuff is bird-friendly.

Safe, Natural Bird Nesting Materials

So, now we know; yarn, string, twine and human hair is not appropriate nesting material for birds.

What can we offer birds as nesting material?

Here’s a list of safe suggestions for bird nesting materials.

hummingbird gathering nesting material1. Plant things in your garden that produce fluffy seeds. Cattails are a good choice. Milkweed is an even better one. Make your own edible butterfly garden with milkweed. The butterflies love it and the birds can use the fluffy seed heads. Honeysuckle and clematis are other lovely flowers that produce fluff useful to birds building nests.

(wonderful hummingbird nest photo from Flickr user tinyfroglet)

2. When you start filling this year’s hanging baskets, offer the birds the worn-out coco fiber linings as bird nesting material.

chaffinch-moss-nest3. Natural fibrous materials like sphagnum and Spanish moss make bird great nesting material. The focus here is on natural fibers. Don’t dyed, chemically preserved or otherwise chemically treated materials. (female chaffinch gathering moss for its nest photo from Nick Goodrum.)

4. Doing any spring cleaning this year? Perhaps you have an old down jacket, pillow or quilt that has seen better days? Recycle the feathers by providing your backyard friends with some natural nesting materials. (While the folks at the rescue did not say so, I’m thinking those colorful dyed craft feathers would probably not be a good idea here. I also wonder if the item has been dry cleaned, if it would be better to not offer it to the birds as there are harsh chemicals used in the dry cleaning process.)

5. Natural fiber quilt batting makes good nesting material too. Scraps of wool or cotton batting cut into 3″ – 6″ strips provide a safe and comfy nesting material. Several folks mentioned using strips of cloth. I wouldn’t. Too many threads that could unravel and become a threat.

UPDATE: Thanks to Sharon, I am removing the suggestion of offering wool scraps as nesting material. Apparently, it can felt in warmer temperatures.

6. Animal fur. Do you have a fur baby? When you brush them, save the loose fur for your bird friends. Just don’t share pet fur that has been treated with flea dips or other insect repellents.

robbin-nest-builder7. Yard debris. Pine straw, wheat straw, small/tiny twigs (anything under 4 inches is particularly useful to most backyard birds) and even grass clippings (untreated with chemicals) make great natural bird nest material. (Kaarina Dillabough graciously shared this lovely robin photo)

Posted in Backyard Visitors, Garden Notes | 24 Comments

24 Responses to Safe Bird Nesting Material

  1. Terry Goodhue says:

    I have seen a Woodpecker die from having a piece of string caught on its barbed tongue. It couldn’t retract its tongue which froze. He didn’t live long after I found him. I’ve also found the skeleton of a Raven fledger in its nest with fishing leader entangling its leg.

    • Michele says:

      Oh Terry, how sad. We have a little resident woodpecker and marvel at how hard he works for his food. Would crush us to find him that way.

      Thank you for stopping by and sharing your stories. So many people, like us, thought we were helping our feathered friends by putting out yarn and hair; when instead, we were putting them at risk of injury and death.

  2. Roslyn Pittoni says:

    I put some undyed wool fleece out one day – didn’t touch it. However, they use to fight over the hen feathers when we had chickens – only the little down feathers though. They picked up the larger flight feathers – measured it up and discarded it. It was great to watch.

  3. Sharon says:

    I read one post elsewhere where a lady found a nest where wool fibers from the batting had felted from the heat and motion of the chicks and had entrapped the feet of some of the nestlings. They died because they could not leave the nest.

    I can’t find anywhere online where dog hair has done this. That is what I have to put out.

    Anyone else with experience on this topic?

    • Michele says:

      I think I had seen someone mention wool roving was a good choice. I’m so glad you shared the story you found about it felting.

      I’m not entirely sure about pet hair. I think one expert said to not put out hair that was any longer than an inch. Can’t remember where I saw that though. I originally would have suggested if it’s short and doesn’t naturally felt (I think poodle fur felts and some cat fur does too) that it might be OK.

      But, after so many folks sharing how good intentions have had dire consequences, I guess it’s just better to either provide piles of small twigs or just leave our feathered friends to their own devices.

      • Teri says:

        I agree so much information out there, i never know whats good info, I think Ill just gather twigs and leaves from the woods by my house and see if they use that.

        • Michele says:

          Ours like pine straw too. But, I would think a small pile of little twigs and leaves would be much appreciated by your feathered neighbors.

    • connie says:

      I just recently read an article that animal fur may not be a good choice due to flea medications that penetrate the skin and also the hair folicles. It can’t be good for the birds. We really have to be cautious about our good deeds, and be sure they are safe.
      I have a lot to learn.

  4. Sharon says:

    Thank you, Michele, for your input. That is the conclusion I have come to as well. I have a ‘loosely kept’ yard and there is plenty of natural material out there for the birdies. I help them out with seeds and suet and I will have to be content with that.

  5. Jenny says:

    Orioles got in my shed and we’re stealing kite string. They had a long string strewn out and over the door. Probably 15 feet! I didn’t know it was bad so I just cut it up and left it for them. I will definitely find something from the suggestions here and put out instead. And I’ll get that string out of the shed so they can’t be tempted.

    • Michele says:

      Oh my goodness, that must have been so much fun to watch. Years ago, we would have probably just made it easier for them to have it too. So glad I saw that article and have been able to share it with everynoe.

  6. Carola Blaney says:

    Hi guys, am I glad I’ve read your recommendations. I was going to purchase natural un-dyed CARDED sheep’s wool as possible nesting material. Would you agree, that this is not suitable (please confirm and why)?? What about Barley Straw, would that be o.k.? Your advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks, Carola.

    • Michele says:

      I think that the wool would be better than yarn but I’ve seen some carded roving that had pretty long fibers. I think I would err on the side of caution and not use it. But, the National Wildlife Federation does suggest using wool. I guess a good middle ground would be to examine it carefully and cut any longer pieces.

      Seems like the barley straw would be OK. I would just be worried that it was treated with pesticides.

  7. Wes Horley says:

    I was watching orioles trying to pull apart plastic bale twine (for hay and straw bales), and while I’ve seen it in old nests I would rather something else be used. Was wondering about length of animal feed bag, white string used to close the bag, cut to perhaps one foot lengths for cardinals.
    I’ll cut some long, narrow-leaf grass with my scythe as a natural nesting material as well for a test !

  8. Angila Lanier says:

    Hi, so if I am reading this right,,any grass or straw pieces should be no longer than 6 inches .. I have broom straw I was going to cut to add to a basket for them this Spring

  9. Lisa says:

    I bought a pack of Spagnum moss from the Dollar Tree ($1.00) to put in my indoor finch cage. They love it. I cut it up so there aren’t really long strands that can cause a problem. Will probably offer some to the wild birds this year as well. Perhaps put it in a suet feeder? I have bluebird boxes. I read that it is good to clean them out at the end of the season they don’t harbor mites, etc. Bluebirds can have 3 clutches per season.

  10. Nancy says:

    I have seen large grackle bird nests where they used strips of black plastic to weave and secure their nest, which lasted years. I don’t give them anything, because they have so much to choose from. I leave it up to them to choose. I had some dragonfly lights in a small redbud tree, where a cardinal built a nest last spring. Sadly, some critter either ate the eggs or babies. I have no idea what happened. It broke my heart. Cycle of life.

  11. Jacey says:

    How about pillow stuffing? Polyfill, is that ok to use?

  12. Marie Rohleder says:

    Thank you for the information. I was going to save the hair that I brushed out since the only thing I have ever used on it is castile soap, I’m so glad I took the time to check.

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