How to identify empty mammal and bird nests

Autumn and winter are a great time for finding and identifying empty birds' and mammals' nests as deciduous trees and bushes lose their leaves. Our illustrated guide will help you identify the nests made by 12 species.

An empty bird nest against a white background.

A season of nest-building, egg-laying and infant-rearing activity is laid bare in autumn and winter. Falling leaves and shrivelling grasses reveal the edifices of a bustling spring and summer that have long been confined to history. Like detectives, we can read the clues amidst the stark landscape, and piece together the success of our local birds and mammals by searching for their deserted nests.

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It’s eyes to the ground first, where the neat, round, tennis-ball-sized nests of harvest mice are built in bramble thickets and scrub. Old carpets, corrugated iron panels and discarded timber hide the grass homes of field voles. In thickets of gorse and hawthorn, long-tailed tits construct their flask-shaped nests from as many as 3,000 feathers interlaced with animal hairs and flakes of lichen. These sturdy constructions should survive the winter, though, like the wren’s similar nests of moss and leaves, they will not be used again.

As the foliage of deciduous trees falls, the minimalist platforms built by woodpigeons, so flimsy and half-hearted that you can often see the eggs through the base, are exposed. Slightly higher and often in quite small urban trees are the twiggy cages of magpies, with their characteristic arch of sticks overtopping the main nest.

In the fork of large trees, grey squirrel dreys are common, while at the very top, still holding tight in autumn squalls, are the beautifully laid constructions of rooks, twigs interwoven skilfully to provide stability in even the fiercest gale.

It is illegal to take, disturb or destroy the nest of any bird species whilst it is being built, or in use, or to take or destroy birds’ eggs. It is often recommended to leave even empty nests alone, since they may be reused the next year, for roosting in other winter, or other animals may find them useful.

All illustrations by Felicity Rose Cole.


How to identify empty mammal nests

Field vole (Microtus agrestis)

Empty field vole nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A field vole’s nest is a ball of nibbled grass stems, often located under discarded planks.

Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)

Empty hedgehog nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A hedgehog’s flimsy summer nest is made of woven leaves and stems hidden in shrubs.

Harvest mouse (Micromys minutus)

Empty harvest mouse nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A harvest mouse is very distinctive as a neat ball of straw in hedgerows and among tall herbs.

Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)

Empty grey squirrel nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A grey squirrel’s drey is a made of up a round plait of twigs up to 50cm across in the fork of a tall tree.

How to identify empty bird nests

Blackbird (Turdus merula)

Empty blackbird nest. Felicity Rose Cole

The nest of a blackbird consists of a cup of grass and feathers lined with mud, often low in bushes.

Mistle thrush (Turdus viscivorus)

Empty mistle thrush nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A mistle thrush nest is a mud-lined weave of grass and moss, in tree forks close to trunk.

Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Empty long-tailed tit nest. Felicity Rose Cole

The nest of a long-tailed tit is an interwoven ball of lichen, feathers and hair, often in gorse or brambles.

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Empty wren nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A wren’s nest is a neat ball in shrubs and on rocks, but the males’ nests are less robust.

The wren’s scientific name, Troglodytes troglodytes, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.

Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus)

Empty woodpigeon nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A woodpiegon’s nest is a flimsy platform of twigs in trees, and is often see-through from below.

Magpie (Pica pica)

Empty magpie nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A magpie’s nest is a mess of twigs with tell-tale ‘basket handle’ over main structure.

The magpie’s scientific name, Pica pica, is an example of a tautonym, where the genus and specific name are the same.

Rook (Corvus frugilegus)

Empty rook nest. Felicity Rose Cole

Rooks create large twig nests at the tops of trees, usually in small groups.

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Empty sparrowhawk nest. Felicity Rose Cole

A sparrowhawk’s nest is a broad twig platform often deep in a conifer tree, but also in deciduous trees.


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Main image: Empty bird nest. © Getty