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Silky Nests in Funky Places

2013 April 15
by Seth Inman

Photo by Charles Spencer, AZ

If you’ve ever watched a hummingbird for some time, you’ve probably thought that they’re one of the cutest and most exciting birds that you can find in your yard. Most would agree that it is some combination of their size, speed, vibrancy (of both color and motion), and relative rarity that can make them so appealing to us, but have you ever seen hummingbird nestlings? Or a nest, for that matter?

In the past couple years of the Funky Nests in Funky Places competition we’ve received photos of over a dozen hummingbird nests, all but one of which have been built on a man-made object! Seeing the hummingbird hatchlings poke their little beaks out of the tiny cup that the mother has created for them is a wonderful experience, and the feat of each minuscule nests’ construction becomes more impressive when you consider what the assembly materials are.

As you take a close look at the contributors’ photos shared here, you should be able to see (despite occasional blurriness) that the majority of the nest cup seems to be comprised of a silky substance. Surprisingly enough, much of this is spider web! Also known as spider silk, these strands of what humans normally think of as a fragile material (though some species of spiders produce silk with a higher tensile strength than steel) are perfect for hummingbirds’ purposes because they are sticky, light, stretchy, and strong.

Photo by Jon Ridler, CA

Photo by Sandy LaMotte, CA

What the hummingbirds in these photos have done is taken materials like ‘plant down’ (e.g. the fluffy stuff that thistles and dandelions produce), hair, and small feathers and combined them with spider webs or other insect silk, securing the base to the piece of wire or whatever foundation they’ve chosen (holiday lights are a popular site in the household setting, apparently). Grass and leaves can also be added to the next layer of the nest, and often lichens or mosses decorate the outermost layer. As you can see from Jon Ridler’s photo above, paint chips can also adorn hummingbird nests – this type of wallpaper, like the lichens and mosses, is most likely used to camouflage the nest rather than to make it pretty!

Now back to the stretchy quality of spider webs: each strand of silk can stretch up to 40% of its original length without breaking! This means that a mother hummingbird can build a nest as small as a large thimble to hold her eggs, and once the nestlings hatch (roughly three weeks after laying) she has stretched and shaped the nest into a better and more comfortable home for her offspring. So the next time you see a hummingbird nest (or, for that matter, any hummingbird at all, and several other small avian species) you can thank spiders for their superb silk!

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