N is for Nests - homes in all conditions

from "The A - Z of Birds on Stamps" by P J Lanspeary

As birds evolved from reptiles and became warm-blooded, nests became necessary for incubating eggs and keeping warm the young. The diversity of nature is beautifully demonstrated by the many different kinds of nests that have been developed. These are well represented on stamps.

The commonest kind are cup-shaped nests placed in a bush or tree. Typical are those of the Chinese Bulbul (Hong Kong, 1975, $1.30) and the Blue-backed Fairy Bluebird (Bhutan, 1990, 25nu). The materials used for most cup-shaped nests are thin twigs and grasses but some birds use moss and lichens often decorated with the webs and cocoons of spiders. Beautiful nests of this kind are those of the African Paradise Flycatcher (Botswana, 1978, 7t) and the Bee Hummingbird (Cuba, 1992, 5c). The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world and builds the smallest nest, about the size of half a walnut.

Some birds build nests which are domed, probably developed from the cup-shaped as extra protection. A good example is the Black and Red Broadbill (Malaysia, 1988, 50c).

By contrast huge platforms of sticks are built by storks and some birds of prey. The White Stork (Belarus, 2002, 200r) is a good example and is shown with young in the nest. A set of six values features various activities of Sandford's Sea Eagle (Solomon Islands, 1982, 12c) - one of the designs portrays a chick and egg dwarfed by a huge nest of sticks. Another bird that builds a very large nest is the Manchurian Crane (China, 2005, 80y).

Very different kinds of stick nests are made by most members of the pigeon family. Some are so loosely constructed that the eggs can be seen from underneath. Such a flimsy platform is made by the Trocaz Pigeon (Madeira, 1991, 35e).

The World champion nest builder is a small, non-descript, brown bird, the Rufous Hornero (Argentina, 1966, 27p50+12p50), which lives in South America and is known locally as the Ovenbird. It constructs a fortress using mud and grass which is often fixed on top of a fence post with no attempt at concealment. The structure is roofed over and has a small side entrance which leads by a roundabout way to the egg chamber. Much time is spent on nest building. An average structure will weigh about 9lbs, compared with a few ounces for the bird. When hard-baked by the sun, the nest provides the sort of protection enjoyed by hole-nesting birds. It is shaped like the ovens used by local people for baking bread - hence the name Hornero, the Spanish for baker. The illustrated stamp is rather stylised and the nest pictured is too small by comparison with the birds.

American Cliff Swallows also use mud for their nests, which are flask-shaped structures. They are colonial breeders and a group of nests form part of a portrait by Audubon (Lesotho, 1985, 5s).

Another use of mud has been developed by the hornbills. Eggs are laid in a hole in a tree where the female walls herself in with mud brought by the male until a narrow slit is all that remains. The female stays in the nest hole until the eggs hatch and, when the young are ready to leave, the mud is broken away. During this period, which may last two and a half months, the male passes food to his mate. This system gives almost complete protection against predators. The Red-billed Hornbill's walled-up hole is well illustrated (Niger, 1967, 1f) while a Rhinoceros Hornbill is shown feeding his mate (Malaysia, 1965, 75c).

Greater Flamingos make their nests by scraping up mud from shallow water into cone-shaped heaps and forming hollows in the tops for their eggs. As can be seen, Greater Flamingos (Senegal, 1978, 20f) are colonial breeders.

The nests of many species of birds are positioned so as to provide protection against predators. The intricately woven nests of the weaver family are often slung from the ends of slender branches so that snakes cannot get at them. A nest of this kind is made by the Red-billed Quelea (Rwanda, 1967, 60c).

Because their feet are placed to the rear of their bodies, grebes find it difficult to walk. So they often build their nests - made of twigs and weeds - on a floating platform to provide an element of safety as shown by the Great-crested Grebe on its floating nest (Ireland, 1979, 10p).

The tailor birds of South-east Asia make one of the most intricate of all nests. The edges of a large leaf, or two smaller ones, are sewn together to make a pouch into which is stuffed down and similar material. The stitching material may be plant fibre, or silk from cocoons, or insects or spiders' webs. The bird pierces holes in the leaf with its beak and then draws the thread through knotting it sufficiently on the outside to prevent it slipping back. The procedure is well illustrated by a Long-tailed Tailor Bird (Laos, 1982, 10k) which has just pierced a leaf.

Some species manage without any nest at all. The White Tern (Tonga, 1998, 5c) lays a single egg in a hollow or ledge on the bare branch of a tree. The young White Terns have well- developed claws for hanging on to their precarious perches, but losses of young and eggs are numerous.

The eggs of Emperor Penguins are incubated by the male - a single egg is balanced on his feet and covered by a pouch of skin. The incubation period is about sixty days during which time the males stand upright and live entirely off their fat. The just-hatched chicks (Australian Antarctic Territory, 1992, $1.20) stay close to their fathers.

A bizarre closure to this brief survey of birds' nests on stamps is provided by a stamp showing a Belted Kingfisher, which always lays white eggs in holes in banks, perched by a cup-shaped nest with three blue eggs (St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 1993, 45c).

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