ArticlePDF Available

Bird Nests in Museum Collections: A Rich Resource for Research


Abstract and Figures

Data-rich birds' nests in museum collections are relatively rarely used in ornithological research but can be valuable sources of scientific data. Materials, architecture, artefacts of utilisation and preserved nest fauna all combine to make museum nest collections potentially excellent behavioural archives. Over recent years, the Natural History Museum, Tring, and the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, have cooperatively developed their respective collections to deliver a combined research resource that is international in scope, increasingly taxonomically representative and rich in time-series of nest specimens for British breeding species. Here we review the role of museum nest collections in furthering avian research and explore how new research techniques may potentially provide exciting opportunities. We also consider collection development and how collections might be better tailored to the needs of avian biology researchers.
Content may be subject to copyright.
Bird nests in museum collections 1
Feathers and eggshells for conserving genetic diversity
doi: 10.3184/175815513X13613786679359
Bird nests in museum collections: a rich resource for research
Douglas G. D. Russella, Mike Hansellb and Maggie Reillyc
aBird Group, Department of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Akeman Street, Tring,
Hertfordshire HP23 6AP, UK
bEnvironmental and Evolutionary Biology and cHunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of
Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK
Data-rich birds’ nests in museum collections are relatively rarely used in ornithological research but can be
valuable sources of scientific data. Materials, architecture, artefacts of utilisation and preserved nest fauna
all combine to make museum nest collections potentially excellent behavioural archives. Over recent years,
the Natural History Museum, Tring, and the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow, have cooperatively developed
their respective collections to deliver a combined research resource that is international in scope, increasingly
taxonomically representative and rich in time-series of nest specimens for British breeding species. Here
we review the role of museum nest collections in furthering avian research and explore how new research
techniques may potentially provide exciting opportunities. We also consider collection development and how
collections might be better tailored to the needs of avian biology researchers.
Keywords: bird nests, museum collections, artefacts
Data-rich bird nests are found in many major natural
science collections worldwide but continue to be relatively
underused in a research context. The reasons for this are
unclear, especially as avian nests can provide a wealth
of opportunities to investigate temporal and geographic
phylogenetic traits of research interest. The materials
used, methods of construction, structural changes due
to wear and tear, accumulations of organic debris from
parents and chicks, and/or presence of ecto-parasites all
combine to make nests in museum collections unique,
enduring, intimate records of behaviour.
Russell et al. (2010) outlined how the Natural History
Museum (NHM), London and Tring, and the Hunterian
Museum (University of Glasgow) have sought to
develop their nest collections in complementary ways.
The NHM collections seek to be international and
taxonomically comprehensive, whilst the Hunterian
focuses on establishing time-series of nests of British
breeding species. The purpose of this paper is to show
the current and potential role of museum nest collections
in furthering avian research. Existing research on these
collections has included study of aspects of functional
design such as thermal conductivity, evolutionary
studies and morphometric analyses. Recently developed
research techniques potentially provide new and exciting
opportunities to extract information from nests in
collections. For example, novel scanning and digitisation
technology may afford opportunities to study the structural
design of nests in a non-invasive way. New refinements in
DNA extraction may make nests in collections valuable
additional sources of DNA, both animal and botanical.
We also describe plans to enhance our collections
through engaging with relevant national and international
organisations, and to make them better known to, and
tailored to the needs of, avian biology researchers.
Museums with natural science research collections may
hold two kinds of avian architecture. First, and certainly
most commonly, bird nests (i.e. structures built, excavated
or modified by birds in which eggs are laid, incubated
and hatched); second, and more rarely, other structures
built or modified by birds as dormitories (Skutch, 1961),
within courtship display, e.g. Ptilonorhynchidae bowers,
or as food stores, e.g. sections of ‘granaries’ constructed
by the Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus). It is
perhaps little known that European museums cumulatively
hold a research resource of at least 22,000 preserved bird
nests built by a wide variety of different species (Roselaar,
2003; Russell et al., 2010). The NHM holds ca 4,000
worldwide nests built by 450 species in 71 Families. The
Hunterian holds ca 1,450 nests of 85 British breeding
species in 28 families.
ABR1300346.indd 1 3/1/2013 6:25:22 PM
2 Douglas G. D. Russell, Mike Hansell and Maggie Reilly
The use and development of museum nest collections
is certainly not new. The eminent British ornithologist
John Gould (1804–1881) built up a data-rich nest
collection in the late 1830s – 1840s to aid him in writing
his landmark work on Australian birds (Figures 1 and
2). An early pioneer of nest research using museum
collections was the equally eminent American naturalist,
Thomas Mayo Brewer (1814–1880). Brewer (1878) used
museum nest collections in studying adaptive processes
and intraspecific variation in nest architecture, a subject
about which we still know relatively little.
Some European museums simply hold localised series
of data-rich examples of nests built by Palaearctic taxa,
but some larger European institutions, such as the NHM,
additionally hold important series of nests collected in
other biogeographic regions (e.g. Afrotropic, Indomalaya,
etc.). Yet representation in many museums is undoubtedly
idiosyncratic and incomplete as collectors (museums?)
rarely set out to develop comprehensive nest collections.
However, both the NHM and Hunterian nest collections
continue to be actively developed; an overview of the
history and development of both collections and a
synopsis of the extant nest resource in Europe is provided
in Russell et al. (2010).
Data-rich nest collections provide research possibilities
and, specifically, the ability to study multiple dimensions
of information in nesting bird biology. Museums provide
opportunities to describe and investigate temporal and
geographic, inter- and intra-species differences in nest
construction in differing habitats and climates.
Questions of bird behaviour
A number of studies have used built structures as
taxonomic characters, with or without other characters to
construct phylogenies. Lanyon (1986, 1988) and Hansell
(2000) found that attaching nest design differences to
phylogenies established on other characters provides
evidence of flexibility of behaviour through evolution.
Clayton and Harvey (1993) identified nest building as
an excellent candidate for large-scale phylogenetic
analysis, possibly across all birds, thereby unravelling the
evolutionary development of a particularly complicated
behavioural process’. Similarly, Winkler and Sheldon
(1993) examined swallow and martin phylogeny via nest
Such analysis is not restricted to nests and can be
applied to bowers. For example, Kusmierski et al.
(1997) examined the evolution of bower diversity in
Ptilonorhynchidae by fitting the bower structure to a
molecular-based phylogeny. A few years later, after
Zyskowski and Prum (1999) commented on the evolution
of nest diversity in the Furnariidae based on museum nest
collections, Sheldon and Winkler (1999) revisited the
topic to give an overview of nest architecture and avian
systematics. Indeed research on this topic is on-going
and the nest collection at Natural History Museum of
Denmark is currently being used for similar purposes (J.
Fjeldså, personal communication).
Nests have, therefore, clearly contributed to studies
on behavioural radiation and speciation. However, there
is potentially a problem with ‘end product’, in this case
the completed nest, as a behavioural measure since it
only contains limited information on the total behaviour
Figure 1 NHMUK N/1843.4.4.42 Nest of Grey Butcherbird
(Cracticus torquatus cinerea; Gould, 1837). Collected on
Monday 8 October 1838 in Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania],
Australia. Gould Collection © NHM.
Figure 2 NHMUK N/1850.7.20.272 Nest of Fuscous Honeyeater
(Lichenostomus f. fuscus; Gould, 1837). Collected in May 1849
by the naturalist John MacGillivray of H.M.S. Rattlesnake at
Moreton Island, south-east Queensland, Australia. © NHM.
ABR1300346.indd 2 3/1/2013 6:25:23 PM
Bird nests in museum collections 3
needed to complete it (Stuart and Hunter, 1998; Hansell,
Researching function in nests often requires precise
identification of the components (often botanical), but
can be highly informative. The identification of botanical
material within nests was admittedly formerly limited as
often the parts of the plant best for identification purposes
were not present, i.e. seed heads, flowers, leaves, etc.
(L. Wolstenholme, personal communication). However,
evidence from other fields and impromptu experimentation
at the NHM has demonstrated that DNA can be obtained
from a variety of dead plant materials, including preserved
nests. The extraction of ‘ancient’ DNA has become routine
in the study of sub-fossil plant material, archaeological
sites and herbarium collections (Russo et al., 2008; Lister
et al., 2010; Sebastian et al., 2010; Palmer et al., 2012).
Attachment materials used to secure a nest to its site are
often absent for both suspended and supported nests, but
communication materials (camouflage/advertisement) can
be examined in museum nests to illustrate and examine
variation in use of materials with signal function. Sergio
et al. (2011) found that white plastic in black kite nests,
acting as extended phenotype signals, were reliable
indicators of both individual and territory.
Variation in the mechanical integrity of nests can
be examined by studying the use, amount and type of
materials. Certainly, such research will require more (than
what?) detailed descriptions of nest construction but new
technologies, such as X-ray computed tomography (CT
scanning) of museum nests may both prove an additional
source of valuable information and have the benefit of
being non-destructive. This technique has been used
in the study of animal-built structures, e.g. to obtain
three-dimensional images of interior spaces of ant nest
excavations (Halley et al., 2005) and termite mounds
(Perna et al., 2008).
Incubation has been a major topic of avian biology,
pure and applied, with increasing interest in the role of the
nest. Heenan and Seymour (2011) studied whether nests
are primarily designed as structurally secure or thermally
insulated environments for the clutch. Britt and Deeming
(2011) found evidence that in blue tits nest composition is
not stereotyped but apparently influenced by a variety of
environmental factors.
Museum nests provide opportunities to explore aspects
of sanitation both temporally and geographically, e.g.
identification of plants with active secondary compounds
in nests, e.g. Clark and Mason (1985, 1988). Museum
collections can be reviewed as a prelude to field and
laboratory empirical studies (Wimberger, 1984). Hansell
recently provided data on 40 species from records made
in museum collections to Aubrecht et al. (2013) for
research into the use of the horse hair fungus Marasmius
as a possible anti-bacterial agent in nests. If possible, it
is also desirable that where research has linked specific
materials, either natural or anthropogenic (Igic et al.,
2009; Suarez-Rodrıguez et al., 2012), with a reduction
in the number of nest-dwelling ectoparasites, relevant
specimens be deposited in museums for future reference.
There has been little study of change in the operation of
the nest from egg-laying to fledging. Many historic nest
labels do not explicitly indicate the stage at which the
nest was collected, but where such data are available,
the operation and integrity of varius functional elements
can be tracked through the nest history and be related
to nest costs; another topic about which we understand
little. Nest records accompanying museum specimens can
supply useful nest development information, as well as
indicating whether chicks were successfully fledged or at
what stage a clutch failed.
The use of tools by higher vertebrates, such as birds
(some passerines) and mammals (particularly monkeys
and apes), has become a model system for the study of
cognition in behaviour (Kenward et al., 2006; Emery and
Clayton, 2009; Fragaszy et al., 2010). Since the same
reasoning can be applied to the construction of nests of
birds and mammals (Muth and Healy, 2011; Casteren et
al., 2012), the comparative study of nest building within
and between species is likely to be a subject of increasing
Non-avian ecological and environmental questions
As we have seen, nests are obviously potentially useful
in researching the taxa that built them, but may also
afford broader research opportunities via the flora and
fauna incorporated within them. A nest is essentially
a modification and/or accumulation of either a single
material or a range of differing materials. Materials
regularly found in nests include animal products (fur,
feathers), arthropod silk, mud, and most abundantly,
botanical materials (Hansell, 2000), but it is notable that
studies which fully document the composition of nests
are quite rare. Museum nest collections can be viewed
as data-rich samples of material (e.g. stems and leaves)
across space and time and consequently materials
included within nests might themselves afford research
opportunities in their own right. Research on nest
fauna is another area of potential interest. Whilst Mey
(2003) noted the importance of bird skin collections as an
essential resource for collecting ectoparasites (especially
chewing lice), nests in collections are possibly another
ABR1300346.indd 3 3/1/2013 6:25:23 PM
4 Douglas G. D. Russell, Mike Hansell and Maggie Reilly
source of ectoparasites for research and illustrate the
potential importance of these collections in disciplines
outside ornithology.
An August 2012, enquiry by the authors that asked for
examples of contemporary uses of nest collections in
museums was sent via the electronic Bulletin-board for
European Avian Curators (eBEAC) and received by ca
140 staff at 112 European museums in 37 countries. Only
8% of recipients responded, of which ca 60% gave brief
details of limited internal or external research attention
in the last 10 years. Several respondents indicated their
nest collection was used, on occasion, by artists and/
or exhibitions. It is likely that a proportion of museums
contacted did not respond as they do not hold significant
nests collections; nevertheless, this indicates that bird
nests in museums are probably a largely untapped
research resource. The specific reasons for this underuse
are unclear but a combination of the aforementioned
eccentric representation, resource fragmentation, a lack of
awareness of collections in the wider research community
and relative inaccessibility are areas to be addressed.
Our knowledge of nest variation and breeding
behaviour is surprisingly poor, even in some otherwise
relatively well-known, taxa. Even in the Ploceidae,
amongst those families noted for their elaborate nest
architecture (Wallace, 1868), there remain species, e.g.
Weyn’s Weaver (Ploceus weynsi), Golden-naped Weaver
(Ploceus aureonucha), Yellow-legged Weaver (Ploceus
flavipes) and Bates’s Weaver (Ploceus batesi), some with
very large ranges, in which nesting behaviour has yet to
be described. In some cases, perhaps understandably, lack
of knowledge is a result of the taxa being poorly known
or rare endemics, e.g. the secretive and shy Plumbeous
Forest Falcon (Micrastur plumbeus) of Colombia and
Ecuador (Orta, 1994; BirdLife International, 2013). Given
the potential importance of understanding breeding
biology in ensuring successful conservation efforts, this
absence of knowledge is troubling. The dedicated work
of contemporary field ornithologists in describing nests,
eggs and breeding of poorly known taxa e.g. Harold F.
Greeney III and colleagues at the Yanayacu Biological
Station, Ecuador, remains extremely important (Greeney
et al., 2011, 2012). Museums can play a central role both
in assisting authors in writing descriptions and, where
appropriate, preserving cited specimens (or samples of
materials from nests where it is impossible or inappropriate
to remove the entire nest). The NHM recently received
the first collected and described nests of two species,
Margaret’s Batis (Batis margaritae) and Black-chinned
Weaver (Ploceus nigrimentus; Mills and Vaz, 2011; Mills
and Oschadleus, in preparation).
Both the NHM and Hunterian are acting to fully
database their nest collections. Our long-term aim is to
engage with the research community to ensure that the
data contained in museum nest (and egg) collections can
be used more proactively. For example, collections could
complement research data and information available from
established long-term projects, such as the British Trust
for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme. The NHM nest
collection of approaching 4,000 nests is now entirely data-
based and will soon be accessible online; the Hunterian
collection is fully data-based and available online via As a research community we
can also consider museum collections in the development
and use of new, innovative, web-based resources such as
PHOWN (PHOtos of Weaver Nests, see http://weavers. PHOWN is a Virtual Museum,
citizen science project of the Animal Demography Unit,
University of Cape Town, to collect and monitor breeding
distributions and colony sizes of weaver birds globally.
Awareness of, and accessibility to, museum collections
in some sections of the research community is gradually
being improved, but bridging the divide between field
based and museum research will require long-term
engagement, cooperation and consideration of longer
term research needs. To this end the NHM, the Hunterian
and the BTO Nest Record Scheme aim to cooperate
and discuss mutual projects in the future. Increasing
engagement with the research community and researcher
awareness of collections is undoubtedly helpful and
increases utility. Ultimately, there is undoubtedly an
element of serendipity in all collecting and sampling;
there is clearly great research potential in examining nests
in museum collections and their true value is yet to be
fully determined.
Aubrecht, G., Huber, W. and Weissenhofer, A. (2013)
Coincidence or benefit? The use of Marasmius (horse-hair
fungus) filaments in bird nests. Avian Biol. Res., 6, in press.
BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Micrastur
plumbeus. Downloaded from on
Brewer T.W. (1878) Variations in the nests of the same species
of birds. Am. Nat., 12, 35-40.
Britt, J. and Deeming, D.C. (2011) First-egg date and air
temperature affect nest construction in Blue Tits Cyanistes
caeruleus but not in Great Tits Parus major. Bird Study, 58,
Casteren, A. van, Sellers, W.I., Thorpe, S.K.S., Coward, S.
and Crompton, R.H.C. (2012) Nest-building orang-utans
demonstrate engineering know-how to produce safe
comfortable beds. PNAS, 109, 6873-6877.
ABR1300346.indd 4 3/1/2013 6:25:23 PM
Bird nests in museum collections 5
Clark, L. and Mason, J.R. (1985) Use of nest material as insecticidal
and anti-pathogenic agents by the European starling.
Oecologia, 67, 169-176.
Clark, L. and Mason, J.R. (1988) Effect of biologically active
plants used as nest material and the derived benefit to starling
nestlings. Oecologia, 77, 174-180.
Clayton, D.H. and Harvey, P.H. (1993) Hanging nests on a
phylogenetic tree. Curr. Biol., 3, 882-883.
Emery, N.J. and Clayton, N.S. 2009. Tool use and physical
cognition in birds and mammals. Curr. Opin. Neurobiol., 19,
Fragaszy, D.M., Greenberg, R., Visalberghi, E., Ottoni, E.B., Izar,
P. and Liu, Q. (2010) How wild bearded capuchin monkeys
select stones and nuts to minimise the number of strikes per
nut cracked. Anim. Behav., 80, 205-214.
Greeney, H.F. and Gelis, R.A. (2011) The nest of the Pearled
Treerunner (Margarornis squamiger). Ornitol. Colombiana,
11, 32-36.
Greeney, H.F., Gelis, R.A., Garcia, T. and Amigo. X. (2012) The
nest, eggs, and nestlings of Fulvous Antshrike Frederickena
fulva from north-east Ecuador. Bull. Brit. Orn. Club, 132, 65-
Halley, J.D., Burd, M. and Wells, P. (2005) Excavation and
architecture of Argentine ants. Insectes Sociaux, 52, 350-356.
Hansell M. (2000) Bird Nests and Construction. Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge.
Hansell M. (2005) Animal Architecture. Oxford University Press,
Heenan, C.B. and Seymour, R.S. (2011). Structural support not
insulation is the primary driver for avian cup-shaped nest
design. Proc. R. Soc. B, 278, 2924-2929.
Igic, B., Cassey, P., Samas, P., Grim, T., and Hauber M.E. (2009)
Cigarette butts form a perceptually cryptic component of song
trush (Turdus philomelos) nest. Notornis, 5, 134–138.
Kenward, B., Rutz, C., Weir, A.A.S. and Kacelnik, A. (2006).
Development of tool use in New Caledonian crows. Inherited
action patterns and social influences. Anim. Behav., 72, 1329-
Kusmierski , R., Borgia, G., Uy, A. and Crozier, R.H. (1997) Labile
evolution of display traits in bowerbirds indicates reduced
effects of phylogenetic constraint. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B, 264,
Lanyon, W.E. (1986) A phylogeny of thirty-three genera in the
Empidonax assemblage of tyrant flycatchers. Am. Mus. Nov.,
2914, 1-57.
Lanyon, W.E. (1988) A phylogeny of the flatbill and tody tyrant
assemblage of tyrant flycatchers. Am. Mus. Nov., 2923, 1-41.
Lister, D.L., Bower, M.A. and Jones, M.K. (2010) Herbarium
specimens expand temporal range of germplasm data in
phytogeographic studies. Taxon, 59, 1321-1323.
Mey, E. (2003). Bird collections - an essential resource for
collecting ectoparasites, in particular chewing lice. Bonn.
Zool. Beit., 51, 131–135.
Muth, F. and Healy, S.D. (2011). The role of adult experience in
nest building in the zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata. Anim.
Behav., 82, 183-189.
Orta, J. (1994) Micrastur plumbeus. In: Del Hoyo, J. Elliott, A. and
Sargatal, J. (eds), Handbook of the birds of the world, Vol.2,
p. 253. New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Editions.
Palmer, S.A., Smith, O. and Allaby, R.G. (2012) The blossoming
of plant archaeogenetics. Ann. Anat., 194, 146-156.
Perna, A., Jost, C., Couturier, E., Valverde, S., Douady, S. and
Theraulaz, G. (2008) The structure of gallery networks
in the nests of termite Cubitermes spp. revealed by X-ray
tomography. Naturwissenschaften, 95, 877–884
Russo, E.B., Jiang, H-E., Li, X., Sutton, A., Carboni, A., del Bianco,
F., Mandolino, G., Potter, D.J., Zhao, L-C., Bera, S., Zhang,
Y-B., Lu, E-G., Ferguson, D.K., Hueber, F., Zhao, L-C., Liu,
C-J., Wang, Y-F. and Li, C-S. (2008) Phytochemical and
genetic analyses of ancient cannabis from Central Asia. J. Exp.
Bot., 59, 1471-1482.
Russell, D.G.D., Hansell, M. and Reilly, M. (2010) Constructive
behaviour: developing a UK nest collection resource. Proc.
5th Int. Meeting European Bird Curators, pp. 77–96. Natural
History Museum, Vienna.
Sebastian, P., Schaefer, H. and Renner, S.S. (2010) Darwin’s
Galapagos gourd: providing new insights 175 years after his
visit. J. Biogeogr., 37, 975-980
Sergio, F., Blas, J., Blanco, G., Tanferna, A., Lopez, L., Lemus, J.A.
and Hiraldo, F. (2011) Raptor nest decorations are a reliable
threat against conspecifics. Science, 331, 327-310.
Suarez-Rodrıguez, M., Lopez-Rull, I. and Macias Garcias, C.
(2012) Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest
ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old
recipe? Biol. Lett., 9, 20120931.
Skutch, A.F. (1961). The nest as a dormitory. Ibis, 103a, 50-70.
Stuart, A.E. and Hunter, F.F. (1998) End products of behaviour
versus behavioural characters: a phylogenetic investigation of
pupal cocoon construction and form in some North American
blackflies (Diptera: Simuliidae). Syst. Entomol., 23, 387-398.
Wallace, A.R. (1868) A theory of birds’ nests: showing the relation
of certain sexual differences of colour in birds to their mode of
nidification. J. Travel Nat. Hist., 1, 73-89.
Wimberger, P.H. (1984) The use of green plant material in bird
nests to avoid ectoparasites. Auk, 101, 615-618.
Winkler, D.W. and Sheldon, F.H. (1993) Evolution of nest
construction in swallows (Hirundinidae): a molecular
phylogenetic perspective. PNAS, 90, 5705-5707.
Zyskowski, K. and Prum, R.O. (1999) Phylogenetic analysis of the
nest architecture of neotropical ovenbirds (Furnariidae). Auk,
116, 891-911.
ABR1300346.indd 5 3/1/2013 6:25:23 PM
... These collections can be visited to complement your data or can be used as laboratories for empirical studies (Wimberger 1984), providing research possibilities that encompass multiple dimensions of bird breeding biology. Specifically, these museums provide opportunities to describe and investigate temporal and geographic, inter-and intraspecific, differences in nest materials, nest architectures, and eggshells (Russell and Hansell 2013) that may allow us to make inferences at different ecological and evolutionary scales. Examples of the uses and perspectives of these kind of collections are discussed in Collias and Collias (1984), Clayton andHarvey (1993), Hansell (2000), Russell and Hansell (2010), Russell et al. (2013), andMarini et al. (2020). ...
... Specifically, these museums provide opportunities to describe and investigate temporal and geographic, inter-and intraspecific, differences in nest materials, nest architectures, and eggshells (Russell and Hansell 2013) that may allow us to make inferences at different ecological and evolutionary scales. Examples of the uses and perspectives of these kind of collections are discussed in Collias and Collias (1984), Clayton andHarvey (1993), Hansell (2000), Russell and Hansell (2010), Russell et al. (2013), andMarini et al. (2020). ...
... Research on nest faunas is an area of potential interest because nests are a source of ectoparasites and may help us understand, for example, the impacts of invasive species on natural bird populations (e.g., Knutie et al. 2017, Bulgarella and Quiroga 2019). Russell et al. (2013) stated that "Ultimately, there is undoubtedly an element of serendipity in all collecting and sampling; there is clearly great research potential in examining nests in museum collections and their true value is yet to be fully determined." ...
Full-text available
en The study of avian nesting biology in North America and Europe has a long history, resulting in an expansive and information-rich literature. In contrast, the tropics have been relatively neglected and, in most ways, we are still at the frontier of exploration. Data about basic nest descriptions and natural history information are still lacking for many Neotropical species; standardization of data collection methods is needed for comparative analyses. Hence, our goals are: (1) motivate a new generation of Neotropical naturalists to collect nesting data by providing basic tips on how to find nests and collect basic data, (2) provide guidelines on how to use and analyze basic data, (3) highlight the importance of collections, (4) describe modern monitoring techniques, and (5) suggest how these data can be used to fill important gaps concerning the breeding biology of tropical birds. Understanding avian nesting biology and the biotic and abiotic factors that influence nesting success is crucial for a better understanding of bird population dynamics and breeding strategies at the community level, and can form the basis for the development of sound conservation measures. Resumen es Guía estandarizada de métodos para la colección de datos sobre biología reproductiva en aves Neotropicales (see Appendix 1 for a Spanish-language version of the entire article). El estudio de la biología de anidación de aves en América del Norte y Europa tiene una larga historia, lo que ha resultado en una literatura extensa y rica en información. Por el contrario, los trópicos han sido relativamente poco estudiados y, en la mayoría de los casos, todavía estamos en la frontera de la exploración. Todavía faltan datos sobre descripciones básicas de nidos e información de historia natural para muchas especies neotropicales, además necesitamos estandarizar las metodologías y recolección de datos para los análisis comparativos. Por lo tanto, nuestros objetivos son: (1) motivar a una nueva generación de naturalistas neotropicales a recopilar datos de anidación proporcionando consejos básicos sobre cómo encontrar nidos y colectar datos básicos, (2) proporcionar pautas sobre cómo usar y analizar datos básicos, (3) resaltar la importancia de las colecciones biológicas, (4) describir las técnicas modernas de monitoreo, y (5) sugerir cómo se pueden utilizar estos datos para llenar vacíos importantes en la biología reproductiva de las aves tropicales. Comprender la biología reproductiva de las aves y los factores bióticos y abióticos que influencian el éxito de la anidación es crucial para comprender mejor la dinámica de las poblaciones de aves, las estrategias de reproducción a nivel de comunidad y puede formar la base para el desarrollo de medidas de conservación sólidas.
... Bird nest specimens are abundant in many natural history collections, yet they are vastly underutilized as a tool for answering questions in ecology [1]. Worldwide there are nearly 60,000 bird nest specimens archived in natural history collections that span the past 250 years [2,3]. ...
... As new technologies emerge, museum specimens are increasingly being used as a source of genetic information [4]. The spatial, temporal, and taxonomic representation of nest specimens makes them an attractive and untapped source of ecological data [1], and nest material can be used to study a variety of ecological topics such as architectural camouflage, chemical defense from pathogens and parasites, intraspecific signaling, seed dispersal, and mammal biogeography [5][6][7][8][9][10][11]. The increasing ubiquity of artificial materials, especially plastics, in the nests of some species has also demonstrated the utility of learning about pollution and land use change in the environment through materials incorporated into bird nests (see [12]). ...
... The two alignment-based methods, genetic distances and phylogenetic analysis, produced similar taxonomic identifications. The top percent identity from the distance matrix based on the alignment of the top 100 BLAST 1 BLAST identification based on the maximum score. Multiple names indicate tied maximum score. 2 Festuca pampeana was the second-closest to F. microstachys in genetic distance at 96.995%. ...
Full-text available
Bird nests in natural history collections are an abundant yet vastly underutilized source of genetic information. We sequenced the nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacer to identify plant species used as nest material in two contemporary (2003 and 2018) and two historical (both 1915) nest specimens constructed by Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) and Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis). A total of 13 (22%) samples yielded single, strong bands that could be identified using GenBank resources: six plants (Angiospermae), six green algae (Chlorophyta), and one ciliate (Ciliophora). Two native plant species identified in the nests included Festuca microstachys, which was introduced to the nest collection site by restoration practitioners, and Rosa californica, identified in a nest collected from a lost habitat that existed about 100 years ago. Successful sequencing was correlated with higher sample mass and DNA quality, suggesting future studies should select larger pieces of contiguous material from nests and materials that appear to have been fresh when incorporated into the nest. This molecular approach was used to distinguish plant species that were not visually identifiable, and did not require disassembling the nest specimens as is a traditional practice with nest material studies. The many thousands of nest specimens in natural history collections hold great promise as sources of genetic information to address myriad ecological questions.
... Existen varias limitantes de información en el desarrollo de los mismos, en primer lugar, porque el nido de muchas especies es desconocido. En otros casos sus descripciones son erradas o poco detalladas (ver caso Pitangus lictor, Crozariol 2016), pero además las colecciones de nidos de aves en los museos se encuentran poco representadas, organizadas o son inexistentes (Russell et al 2013) lo que no permite hacer comparaciones acertadas entre especies. Este escenario dificulta el análisis de las variaciones geográficas en la forma de los nidos, sobre los materiales de construcción empleados y la inferencia sobre las relaciones evolutivas entre los grupos de aves. ...
... Estos estudios, requieren el acceso a un gran número de muestras, que reflejen la variabilidad inter e intraespecífica, así como las variaciones geográficas que podrían existir. Sin embargo, no existen tal número de muestras y el espacio físico en cualquier museo sería insuficiente para tal propósito (Russell et al 2013). En tal sentido, se recomienda que los museos y colecciones preparen espacios y personal para dicha tarea sobre bases de datos digitales que resguarden material fotográfico de nidos de la mayor riqueza posible de especies. ...
Full-text available
Revista Venezolana de Ornitología 11 (Suplemento): 4–185. Abstract.– Bibliographical account of bird nests in Venezuela.– In order to understand the amount of available information about bird nests in Venezuela, we conducted a systematic search of the literature limited to the Neotropical region and the geographical boundaries of the country from Isla de Aves to Serranía de la Neblina National Park. We evaluated 1,257 resident birds, 96 migratory (boreal, austral), 43 vagrant, 46 endemic, 18 hypothetical, six exotic, and one extinct species. Of the 1,257 resident species, we found 1,016 nest descriptions in the Neotropics. The nests of 241 species are still unknown. A total of 141 authors published information about at least one nest, which covers 257 species (just 20.4% of the country). Three migratory birds and two exotic species nest in the country. Our results show that studies or descriptions of nests are still rare in Venezuela. In addition, 32 nests of 46 endemic birds are still unknown. The absence of such information points to the need for more study in Venezuelan bird nests. Publishing updated information on known bird nests means more information available for comparison to other neotropical locations. Key words: Literary research, Neotropical birds, nests, breeding
... Study of physical nests also has revealed the selective use of construction material for specific functions, including camouflage through optical illusion, tensile strength, sanitation, regulation of egg evapotranspiration, and response to climatic conditions (Ar and Rahn 1980;Freymann 2008;Aubrecht et al. 2013;Ruiz-Castellano et al. 2016Campbell et al. 2018). Collected nests may also be used to describe contemporary and historical species range limits for birds, insects and plants (Rulik and Kallweit 2006;Russell et al. 2013). ...
... Overall, there are positive signs that nests are starting to receive more and renewed attention by researchers and museum staff for description and museum collection (Simon and Pacheco 2005;Russell et al. 2013;Gonzaga et al. 2016). There is still much about bird (See figure on next page.) ...
Full-text available
Background Bird nests are an important part of avian ecology. They are a powerful tool for studying not only the birds that built them, but a wide array of topics ranging from parasitology, urbanisation and climate change to evolution. Despite this, bird nests tend to be underrepresented in natural history collections, a problem that should be redressed through renewed focus by collecting institutions. Methods Here we outline the history and current best practice collection and curatorial methods for the nest collection of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (ANWC). We also describe an experiment conducted on nests in the ANWC using ultrasonic humidification to restore the shape of nests damaged by inappropriate storage. Results The experiment showed that damaged nests can be successfully reshaped to close to their original dimensions. Indeed, restored nests were significantly closer to their original shape than they were prior to restoration. Thus, even nests damaged by years of neglect may be fully incorporated into active research collections. Best practice techniques include extensive note taking and photography in the field, subsampling of nests that cannot or should not be collected, appropriate field storage, metadata management, and prompt treatment upon arrival at the collection facility. Conclusions Renewed focus on nest collections should include appropriate care and restoration of current collections, as well as expansion to redress past underrepresentation. This could include collaboration with researchers studying or monitoring avian nesting ecology, and nest collection after use in bird species that rebuild anew each nesting attempt. Modern expansion of museum nest collections will allow researchers and natural history collections to fully realise the scientific potential of these complex and beautiful specimens.
... Although this is not so feasible for fish and for groups of animals that lay eggs in scrapes, or holes, or dig burrows, there are many species for which their nests can be removed from the habitat intact and taken into museum collections. Of course, museum egg collections have long proved a rich and invaluable source of data for a range of questions on reproduction, particularly of birds, but the vessel in which those eggs were contained features to a much lesser extent, both in the collections and in the literature [38]. Nonetheless, although slow to get underway, there have been an increasing number of studies utilizing birds' nests that are held in various museums. ...
Full-text available
Successful reproduction for most birds requires them to have built ‘good’ nests. The remarkable diversity of nests across approximately 10 000 species of living birds suggests that ‘good’ nest design depends critically on a species' microhabitat, life history and behaviour. Unravelling the key drivers of nest diversity remains a key research priority—bolstered by renewed appreciation for nest museum collections and increasing correlational field and experimental laboratory data. Phylogenetic analyses—coupled with powerful datasets of nest traits—are increasingly shedding light on the evolution of nest morphology and there are functional questions yet to be addressed. For birds, at least, developmental and mechanistic analyses of building (behaviour, hormones, neuroscience) itself, rather than measurements and analyses of nest morphology, are already becoming the next major challenge. We are moving towards a holistic picture in which Tinbergen's four levels of explanation: evolution, function, development, and mechanism, are being used to explain variation and convergence in nest design—and, in turn, could shed light on the question of how birds know how to build ‘good’ nests. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The evolutionary ecology of nests: a cross-taxon approach’.
... Meanwhile, an array of modern descriptive and analytical techniques, including computational approaches, enables the quantification of the shape of nests from digital images and other scans [15][16][17]. Studies of nests stored in museums also provide new possibilities to examine temporal and spatial variation in nest characteristics in a level of detail not previously possible [18][19][20]. This range of novel and updated approaches has vastly advanced our understanding of the evolutionary ecology of nests by enabling researchers to perform studies that were impossible just a few years ago. ...
Full-text available
Nests, including the enormous structures housing colonies of eusocial insects and the elaborately built nests of some fishes, have long fascinated scientists, yet our understanding of the evolutionary ecology of nests has lagged behind our understanding of subsequent reproductive stages. There has, however, been a burgeoning amount of interest in nests over the past decade, and this special issue on ‘The evolutionary ecology of nests: a cross-taxon approach' outlines our understanding of the form and function of nests in diverse animal lineages. Papers in ‘The function of nests: mechanisms and adaptive benefits' theme examine the various functions of nests, while papers in ‘The evolution of nest characteristics' theme examine the evolution of nesting behaviours. Meanwhile, papers in the ‘Large communal nests in harsh environments' theme examine how the enormous structures constructed by eusocial insects and social birds enable them to inhabit harsh arid environments, whereas papers in the ‘Nests in the Anthropocene' theme examine how adaptive shifts in nest architecture allow animals to adapt to breed in the age of accelerating global human impacts. Finally, the synthesis outlines how the mixture of ideas and approaches from researchers studying different taxa will advance our understanding of this exciting field of research. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The evolutionary ecology of nests: a cross-taxon approach’.
... Further work is needed to establish the extent to which such plasticity can protect against poor reproductive outcomes across passerine species. Our analysis also demonstrates the value of nest collections-currently an underused resource (Russell et al., 2013)-for studies of large-scale patterns of variation in avian reproductive traits. In particular, we note that the collection dates of the nests presented here span a century and a half. ...
Full-text available
The size of a bird's nest can play a key role in ensuring reproductive success and is determined by a variety of factors. The primary function of the nest is to protect offspring from the environment and predators. Field studies in a number of passerine species have indicated that higher‐latitude populations in colder habitats build larger nests with thicker walls compared to lower‐latitude populations, but that these larger nests are more vulnerable to predation. Increases in nest size can also be driven by sexual selection, as nest size can act as a signal of parental quality and prompt differential investment in other aspects of care. It is unknown, however, how these microevolutionary patterns translate to a macroevolutionary scale. Here, we investigate potential drivers of variation in the outer and inner volume of open cup nests using a large dataset of nest measurements from 1117 species of passerines breeding in a diverse range of environments. Our dataset is sourced primarily from the nest specimens at the Natural History Museum (UK), complemented with information from ornithological handbooks and online databases. We use phylogenetic comparative methods to test long‐standing hypotheses about potential macroevolutionary correlates of nest size, namely nest location, clutch size and variables relating to parental care, together with environmental and geographical factors such as temperature, rainfall, latitude and insularity. After controlling for phylogeny and parental body size, we demonstrate that the outer volume of the nest is greater in colder climates, in island‐dwelling species and in species that nest on cliffs or rocks. By contrast, the inner cup volume is associated solely with average clutch size, increasing with the number of chicks raised in the nest. We do not find evidence that nest size is related to the length of parental care for nestlings. Our study reveals that the average temperature in the breeding range, along with several key life‐history traits and proxies of predation threat, shapes the global interspecific variation in passerine cup nest size. We also showcase the utility of museum nest collections—a historically underused resource—for large‐scale studies of trait evolution.
... Our method can also increase the sample size of nests, for instance using historical nest collections. Although there are some museum collections that contain many nests, most of these old nests cannot be destroyed for data collection (Russell et al. 2013). Even with permits for dismantling, structural or morphological data from complete nests need to be acquired before dismantling, as such data would be lost afterwards. ...
Full-text available
The materials that birds use to build their nests have a profound effect on nest quality and consequently on the builder’s reproductive success. Given that the common method to quantify nest materials by dismantling nests takes time and limits study species, we developed a non‐destructive and much quicker method for quantifying nest materials using nest photographs. Using our photographic method, the proportions of the main materials in 45 Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus and 20 Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata nests, including grass, heather, and moss, matched those found by dismantling the nests, while the proportions of rarer animal‐derived materials differed between the two methods. Provided that there is an initial calibration with the dismantling method, the photographic method offers the two key advantages: the reduction in time it takes to quantify the major components of nests, and the application to previously inaccessible data including museum collections. Together, these advantages encourage further study of nesting materials and enable a better understanding of avian nest diversification.
... Likewise, nest collections and the deposit of nonspecimen egg and nest data (i.e. photos with metadata) at museums can build up archived and accessible breeding information (Russell et al. 2013); hundreds of bird species still do not have a single clutch or nest represented in a collection. Furthermore, egg collections of some museums (e.g., FMNH, WFVZ, and YPM in the USA, and NHMUK and NMS in the UK) are still receiving historical egg collections from private collectors and small museums, and current specimens from researchers conducting field projects. ...
Full-text available
The ~1.97 million egg sets (~5 million eggs) housed in museums have not been used in proportion to their availability. We highlight the wide variety of scientific disciplines that have used egg collections and the geographic locations and sizes of these collections, to increase awareness of the importance of egg collections, improve their visibility to the scientific community, and suggest that they offer a wealth of data covering large spatial scales and long time series for broad investigations into avian biology. We provide a brief history of egg collections and an updated list of museums/institutions with egg collections worldwide. We also review the limitations, challenges, and management of egg collections, and summarize recent literature based on historical and recent museum egg materials.
Full-text available
This paper describes the history of the Virtual Museum, originally developed in 2005 for the Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment (SARCA), which was sponsored by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI). The Virtual Museum grew to have 17 sections and the associated database, in 2023, contained 2.2 million biodiversity records from Africa. We summarize the major outputs of this initiative, and discuss potential future uses of the database.
Full-text available
The Pearled Treerunner (Margarornis squamiger) is a small ovenbird (Furnariidae) inhabiting the upper strata of Neotropical montane forests. Little is known of its breeding habits despite its wide distribution and abundance within appropriate habitat. The genus Margarornis is considered closely related to Premnoplex barbtails, but details of nest architecture supporting this relationship are unavailable. Here we provide the first detailed description of nest architecture for the Pearled Treerunner from a nest encountered in northwest Ecuador. The nest was a tightly woven ball of moss and rootlets, similar in shape to that of the Spotted Barbtail (Premnoplex brunnescens) and presumably built in a similar manner. Nest architecture and nestling behavior support a close relationship between Margarornis and Premnoplex.
Full-text available
Bird nests often contain objects produced and manipulated by other animals, including human rubbish. The function, if any, of these items remains unclear, and it is unknown whether they might serve a signalling role to increase the conspicuousness of the nest lining or contribute to its crypsis. We located several nests of the introduced song thrush (Turdus philomelos) in New Zealand containing discarded cigarette butts. These items were embedded into the dried mud-matrix of the nest and appeared visually inconspicuous to the human observer. However, human and avian visual sensitivities are dramatically different. We used full-spectrum reflectance spectrophotometry, combined with perceptual modelling of the avian visual system to assess the contrast between mud lining, garbage, and the colours of thrush eggs. Our analyses confirmed that, when perceived by birds, cigarette butts were similar in appearance to the nest lining and showed sharp contrast with the eggs. We suggest that cigarette butts form an opportunistic structural component of the song thrush nest. It remains to be determined whether human-made objects in song thrush nests serve anti-predator or an olfactory signalling function. This study illustrates the application of avian perceptual modelling to test signalling based hypotheses for the extended phenotype of birds, including nest architecture.
Conference Paper
Filaments of horse-hair fungus (genus Marasmius) were preliminarily found in nests of 98 bird species from 27 families in the tropics and nearctis. Marasmius filaments are used for nest structure but are also known to contain antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic properties. At least locally, birds gather these filaments selectively. We therefore hypothesise a probable selective advantage for birds using Marasmius in their nests.