Green home building is all the rage right now, but humans are Johnny-come-latelys to ecological building. Our “nests” are too often made from new materials that come from far and wide. Not so in the avian world.

Autolycism is for the birds. In A Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare created a character that would fit right in on the Vineyard and in this latest trend. Autolycus was a “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.” It is this Shakespearean scrounger that gave us the term autolycism.

The avian types that practice it have developed a habit that would make even the best re-users and recyclers envious. Autolycism is the inclination to use other people’s unwanted stuff in nest construction. It is truly an art and a science.

Ospreys are the Autolycuses of the bird world. They incorporate almost anything into their nests, including rope, cloth, plastic and other so-called trash. Rumor has it that author John Steinbeck found an osprey nest that included three shirts, a bath towel, and a garden rake. I have been watching in wonder at the male osprey that has been collecting items and building his abode on the Felix Neck osprey pole.

Known for their large nests, ospreys assemble their nests on trees or platforms. The nests can be at least three feet deep and five feet across, and will get bigger every year as osprey add materials to the previous year’s construction. That’s why I say ospreys deserve a prize for both reusing materials and letting nothing go to waste.

But they do not win an award for the largest nest in the bird world, large as their nests are. That honor goes to eagles, whose nests can be more than 10 feet high by 10 feet wide and exceed one ton in weight. No flimsy nest poles for them. On the other end of the scale, the hummingbird’s nest, made of spider silk, lichen and plant down, measures only 1.5 inches in diameter and just over 2 inches high. Weight isn’t really an issue for their nests.

Birds are not the only nesters: insects, reptiles, a few fish, and even some mammals use nests. Nor are all birds nest-makers. Some birds keep it much simpler.

No fuss, no muss, no nest, and no moving are the Emperor penguins’ habit. The female lays a single egg on the ground, and the male will scoop it up and rest it on his feet for 60 days until the female returns from feeding and the egg hatches.

The next level on the scale of complexity of nest building is the creation of scrapes or depressions. Plovers make scrapes in the sand for their nests, using the cryptic coloring of their eggs for camouflage and protection from predators.

The most common nest is the cup nest — about 75 per cent of songbirds makes that type. Other birds, including orioles and kinglets, get creative and weave hanging nests. But the mythological birds called Griffins take the cake for beautiful building materials and richness in design: they are said to line their nests with pure gold.

If this luxury doesn’t impress, perhaps the nest-building technique of the cave swiftlets will make an impression. They build all or part of their nests out of their own saliva. These nests are used by Chinese chefs to prepare bird’s nest soup, a dish that has been described as the most “expensive and tasteless” in the world. Epicurean opinions aside, I am sure that the swiftlets don’t appreciate having their nests made into soup either.

That is not the type of reusing or foraging that I would encourage. What I do advise is seeing nests in the wild, a true green endeavor.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.