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How Long Do Baby Birds Stay in the Nest and More Nest Facts

Learn facts about bird nests. Discover how birds build nests, how long baby birds stay in nests, how long it takes bird eggs to hatch and more.

A tree swallow gathers nest material.Courtesy Drew Henderson
A tree swallow gathers nest material.

Facts About Bird Nests

Nests are generally thought of as a bird’s home, but it is more appropriate to consider them a nursery for raising baby birds. Sarah Winnicki-Smith, a Ph.D. candidate in avian evolutionary ecology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, helps clear up other common confusions with nesting. “Adult birds aren’t always hanging out at the nest like we might see on television shows,” Sarah says. Find out how birds build nests, how long it takes for bird eggs to hatch and how long baby birds stay in the nest.

Learn about 9 different types of bird nests and how to spot them.

Altamira orioleDave Welling
Altamira oriole weaving a nest

How Do Birds Build Nests?

Not all bird nests look like the classic cup of woven sticks. The architecture of some nests is quite impressive. American dippers build nearly waterproof nests with moss exteriors along banks of raging streams. Many species add sprigs of certain plants to serve as pest repellents. Discover how orioles weave elaborate nests.

During graduate work on grassland birds, Sarah observed meadowlarks weaving grass domes with tunnels facing into the prevailing winds to keep nestlings cool on hot summer days. Psst—this is the only bird nesting material you should put out.

Birds also adapt to local conditions. Great horned owls traditionally nest in trees, but they alternatively use ground sites, cliffs, saguaro cactus tops or even buildings. Notoriously, owls often take over old nests of hawks, crows, herons or squirrels.

Do birds reuse their nests?

how long do baby birds stay in the nest, Cedar waxwings with nestlingsCourtesy Donald Smith
Cedar waxwings with nestlings

Do Male Birds Make Nests?

Nest construction varies across species. Many times, nest building is a collaborative effort. But for some species, such as red-winged blackbirds, the males establish territories and leave the nest construction to the females. For many wrens and other birds, male bird dads construct several nests within the territory, and females choose mates based partially on these nests. The females freshen up the chosen nest before laying their eggs. See adorable photos of bird mothers with babies.

For most bird species, males and females are ultimately both involved in fledging the young. Sarah says,“To be successful requires a combination of nest construction, sitting on eggs and bringing food resources back.”

Learn about cedar waxwing baby birds and nests.

Robin eggsCourtesy Lesley Rutter
Robin eggs in a cup-shaped nest

When Do Birds Build Nests?

It’s an oversimplification to think that birds nest only in summer. In the southern reaches of the United States, breeding can happen during any month. Even in the North, raptor courtship may start by late fall, and female owls, hawks and eagles may be sitting on eggs by February. American goldfinches are famously late-season nesters. Their breeding cycle matches up with crops of native thistles. This linkage with weather and food is what drives the timing of nesting, which can happen as late as September.

“In the Midwest, American robins start building nests when it is still cold, but warmer temperatures and food resources are available when the young hatch,” Sarah says. 

Find out when bluebirds nest and lay eggs.

how long do baby birds stay in the nestCourtesy Gale Reece
Phoebes look for overhangs when choosing a nesting location, often selecting barns and other structures.

How Long Does It Take for Bird Eggs to Hatch

There are generally two approaches to egg laying and they affect the time a bird egg takes to hatch. Altricial species (such as songbirds) are born nearly featherless. These helpless hatchlings depend on adults for warmth and food for weeks before fledging. Most backyard bird eggs hatch in 11 to 14 days. Common redpoll eggs hatch in about 10 days. Blue jay eggs may take up to 16 days to hatch.

Precocial species (such as shorebirds, waterfowl and grouse) lay larger eggs and have longer incubation periods. Great horned owl eggs hatch in about 30 days. Even though they’ve been laid days apart, the eggs hatch at the same time, and hatchlings hit the ground running.

What is a fledgling? Learn the five stages of a baby bird’s life.

bald eagle nest, types of bird nestsCourtesy Tonya Sharp

How Long Do Baby Birds Stay in the Nest?

Some species, like killdeer, quail, grouse, wild turkeys and sandpipers, are up and running around as soon as they hatch. Most baby birds stay in the nest for at least 10 days in the nest before flying off on their own. For birds like Baltimore orioles, bluebirds and rose-breasted grosbeaks, this happens typically between two and three weeks old. But it’s a different story with larger birds like owls, hawks and eagles. Bald eagles will stay in the nest up to 98 days!

Discover 9 proven tips to attract nesting birds.

juvenile cowbirdCourtesy Julia Worth
Chipping sparrow feeding a young cowbird

Some Birds Lay Eggs in the Nests of Others

Around 1% of birds don’t build a nest of their own. Instead, these brood parasites lay eggs in the nests of other species. Brown-headed cowbird eggs have been documented in the nests of more than 200 other types of birds. Learn how to keep house sparrow nests out of bluebird boxes.

“It’s pretty amazing that these baby birds can grow up in such different environments,” says Sarah.

Psst—here’s what to do if you find a bird nest with eggs or a baby bird.

Killdeer nest, how long do baby birds stay in the nestSteve and Dave Maslowski
Killdeer opt for no-fuss nests by laying eggs in the open, usually on gravel or dirt

How to Get Involved as a Nest Monitor

Project NestWatch is a community science project that tracks the status and trends of nesting birds. Anyone can participate in this exciting project administered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Nest monitors visit sites every three to four days and collect data on the contents of nests, including egg numbers and hatchling growth. Here’s how to participate:

  • Pass an online certification quiz at nestwatch.org
  • Locate a nest (or multiple nests!)
  • Collect data
  • Submit results online or via the mobile app

Next, learn how to choose the perfect chickadee nest box.

Ken Keffer
Professional naturalist and award-winning environmental educator and author Ken Keffer has penned seven books connecting kids and the outdoors. Ken is currently on the Outdoor Writers Association of America Board of Directors. Ken was born and raised in Wyoming. He's done a little bit of everything, from monitoring small mammals in Grand Teton National Park to researching flying squirrels in southeast Alaska. Ken enjoys birding, floating on lazy rivers, fly fishing, and walking his dog.