How to identify garden bird nests

An easy guide to identifying the bird nests you are most likely to find in your garden.

BBC Wildlife features editor Ben Hoare found this empty long-tailed tit nest lying in a country lane. © Ben Hoare

All illustrations by David Daly


More birds are nesting in our gardens than ever before. If you’re lucky enough to have any avian residents in your garden, here’s how you can learn who lives where.

With spring here, watch out for birds carrying nesting material or look out for abandoned nests in the autumn.

But remember not to disturb nesting birds – it is an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, and a licence is needed for photography.

NB All nest measurements refer to the size of the nest cup.

  • Location: Bushes or low trees, 1.5m–5m high, usually just inside canopy; sometimes deeper.
  • Nests may be in small groups.
  • Appearance: 6.5cm; untidy appearance. Made of dried grass, moss and thin twigs, lined with hair, thin roots and sometimes feathers.
  • Season: April to July; two broods, occasionally three.
  • Location: Same as for greenfinch.
  • Appearance: 6cm; one of the neatest nests of any bird.
  • Made of carefully woven moss. Decorated externally with lichens and cobwebs and lined with hair.
  • Season: April to July; two broods, occasionally three.
  • Location: Same as for greenfinch.
  • Appearance: 6cm; a very neat cup of moss lined with thistle-down and wool.
  • Season: April to July; two broods, occasionally three.
  • Location: Bushes, usually with dense cover, tangles of sticks and dense vegetation; often close to ground,
  • rarely higher than 1.5m.
  • Appearance: 6cm; small, relatively flat cup, foundation of twigs.
  • Main structure moss mixed with leaves and lined with moss, wool, hair and feathers.
  • Season: March to July; two broods, occasionally three.
  • Location: Typically well hidden under ivy, among tree roots, under thick herbage or ledges of buildings, or in outhouses. Rarely higher than 3m and usually close to the ground.
  • Appearance: 7cm; moss on foundation of dead leaves. Lined with hair or rootlets.
  • Season: March to June; two broods, sometimes three.
Long-tailed tit
  • Location: In bushes 1-5m high, or in coniferous or deciduous trees up to 20m high, usually in forks or at the ends of branches.
  • Appearance: An oval ball of moss, cobwebs and hair, decorated on the outside with lichens and lined with up to 2,000 feathers.
  • Hole in side, usually near top.
  • Season: March to May; one brood.
House sparrow
  • Location: In trees or bushes up to 20m high, but generally around roof height. Often in cavities in walls and buildings; usually in colonies.
  • Appearance: Untidy dome of grass or straw. Lined with feathers and built by both sexes.
  • Variable in size, but in cavities the nest is much reduced.
  • Season: February to August; two or three broods, rarely four.
  • Location: Bushes or hedges up to 3m high, occasionally much higher in trees or on ledges of buildings.
  • Appearance: 9cm; bulky and conspicuous in appearance.
  • Made of dried grass and moss. Lined with mud covered with fine grass.
  • Season: March to July; two broods, occasionally three.
Song thrush
  • Location: As for blackbird.
  • Appearance: 9cm; like the blackbird’s but unique among British bird nests in having a hard lining of mud, rotten wood and dung, cemented with saliva and moulded into shape by the female’s breast.
  • Season: March to July; two broods, occasionally three.
Mistle thrush
  • Location: Generally high up in trees.
  • Appearance: 10cm, bulky and conspicuous. Made of dried grass and mud, decorated with paper, other rubbish, flowers or green leaves.
  • Season: March to July; two broods, occasionally three.