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Nature's amazing architects: The stunning and intricate birds' nests that have survived the test of time for more than 100 years

  • Pictures were taken by photographer Sharon Beals for her book Nests
  • Many of the photos are also on display now through May 2014 at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C.

Most people think of a simple round bowl filled with eggs up in a tree when they think of a bird's nest, but not all are the same.
Photographer Sharon Beals set out to catalog these works of art for her book Nests. Calling birds 'nature's most fastidious architects,' Ms Beals wanted to share her fascination with structures created 'in all shapes and sizes using a variety of materials.
'There are those that build with mud, burrow tunnels, weave hanging pendulous baskets or cups onto branches, stitch leaves, stack sticks, or glue with saliva. Some just make simple scrapes on the ground, or fill cavities with fur and bones, and others that camouflage their nests with lichen, spiderweb, or moss,' Beals wrote in her book.
The nests featured in the book are parts of permanent collections at the California Academy of Sciences, the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, and the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology.
Many of the nests pictured were collected prior to 1950, some are over 100-years-old. Nest collecting was made illegal in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, signed into law in 1918.
Several of the photos are also on display now through May 2014 at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C.

All captions and further descriptions are courtesy of Ms Beals.

Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis): Collected from Morazón, State of El Progreso, Guatemala, 2001 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
The only North American member of the penduline-tit family (Remizidae), these tiny insectivores survive bitter winters and searing summers in the arid forests, scrub lands, and deserts of the American Southwest and Mexico

They manage this year-round residency by building small thorny domes for both breeding and roosting. Fledglings as young as three months construct their own nests, and in a year a Verdin may build a dozen solo shelters.

Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia): Collected from Scammons Lagoon, Shell Island, Baja California, Mexico, 1932 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
African Palm Swifts live in sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Arabia, and Madagascar. Using their sticky saliva, they bond a shallow platform of soft feathers and plant down to the under side of a downward hanging palm leaf. 
If palms are unavailable, they adopt other trees, or even man-made structures. When the female produces an egg, she carefully lowers it into the nest platform and glues it in place with saliva. Both members of a pair incubate the eggs, pressing them tightly against the nest, trading shifts carefully.

Two Brown Creeper Nests (Certhia americana zelotes): Left: Collected from Spanaway, Pierce County, Washington, 1926 Right: Collected from Echo Summit, Mono County, California, 1942 The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

This cup of moss and lichen was built by a pair of Akekee in the crown of an Ohi?a Lehua tree. The last 4,000 of these small finches are found in the high rainforests of Kauai. Living above 1,800 feet, these survivors have escaped the mosquito-borne avian pox and malaria that have decimated so many other Hawaiian birds since the 1800s when European trading ships emptied their bilges on the island.
Grazing and feral animals have also destroyed their habitats. Of 113 endemic species, 71 have been lost. Of the 42 left, Akekee are one of the 32 listed as endangered.

Relatives of blackbirds and meadowlarks, Altimira Orioles can be found from the Rio Grande to Nicaragua, living in year-round territories as life-long pairs. It can take the female a month to weave a pendulous nest, which is entered from the top, with a nesting chamber at the bottom.
In Texas, Altamira Orioles are considered a threatened species due to the loss of the native trees of the Rio Grande to agriculture and to flood control.

Bullocks Oriole (Icterus bullockii): Collected from Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York, 2003 The Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates
Brown Boobies breed on the islands and atolls of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, and the Caribbean Sea. The only species of ground-nesting Booby that regularly builds a nest, its ritualized construction plays a role in the bonding and breeding partnership. 
Made of almost anything available, from grass, sticks, and seaweed, to refuse and plastic, it often includes bones and the bodies of dead Sooty Tern chicks. The male, head and neck stretched high, presents a piece to the female, who accepts with the same posture. They both work these offerings into the nest with quivering heads, soft grunts and calls.

These colorful songbirds breed in woodlands in western North America?especially insect-rich land bordering water, filled with cottonwood, sycamore, and willow trees. Most migrate to Mexico for the winter. Usually the female weaves the hanging nest, but her mate may help, the pair working in tandem, one on the inside, the other out.
Horse hair, twine, fibers, grasses, and wool form the outer shell, which is lined with cottonwood or willow cotton, wool, or feathers. The blue fibers wrapping this nest are the plastic threads of a construction tarp.

African Palm Swift (Cypsiurus parvus): Collected from Morondera, Mashonaland East Province, Zimbabwe, 1973 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Found on every continent except Antarctica, Caspian Terns breed near coastal estuaries and lagoons, lakes, reservoirs, and rivers that offer small- to medium-sized fish, the major food source for these diving birds. They often return to their former nesting grounds, which might be species-specific colonies, or ones mixed with other species of terns, as well as gulls, plovers, cormorants, stilts, pelicans, and skimmers.
Nest construction is rudimentary, with both sexes scraping a shallow depression in the ground, adding rocks, shells, sticks, seaweed, and other plant material, and relying on the color of their eggs to camouflage them in the open.

These winged jewels are common in Cuba and the Bahamas, with a few found in Florida. Like all hummingbirds, nest building and care of the young is the responsibility of the female. They attach their nests to supporting forks of a branch in a shrub or vine, frequently in a young coffee plant. 
Their well-hidden two-inch cups are made of silky plant fibers and moss bound with spider web, with long trailing grasses and strips of plant bark that disguise its shape, and bits of lichen and bark attached to its exterior.

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor): Collected from Tatoosh Island, Callam County, Washington, 1995 The Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates
These iridescent aerialists nest in cavities of older trees and snags, often those created by woodpeckers. Goose feathers insulate this loose cup of grass and twigs found in one of these natural nesting sites, which have been disappearing over the past 200 years. They will readily occupy nest boxes as substitutes if they are placed near sources of insects, the mainstay of their diet.
Disguised as a piece of moving bark, Brown Creepers circumnavigate tree trunks, consuming a wide variety of insects and bugs. The female builds the nest under a flap of bark or in a cavity of a dead or dying tree, or in the excavations of woodpeckers, squirrel drays, even crevices in manmade structures. 
A foundation of twigs, bark, and woodchips bound with spider web and cocoons attached at a couple of anchor points supports a layer of wood fibers, leaf fragments, hair, feathers, grasses, lichens, or moss.

Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus): Collected from Big Basin State Park, Santa Cruz County, California, 1974 The California Academy of Sciences
 Striking Central and South American members of the Cardinal family, a mated pair shapes a simple, sturdy cup of plant fibers and leaves, often lining it with the black threads of horsehair fungus. It is well hidden, usually in a tree fork or the leaves of a branch. 
They also adopt other protective sites: the fronds of banana plants, cavities in trees, abandoned hanging oropendola nests, and rarely, the cavity of a scavenged honeycomb. They are insectivores, but they also eat fruit; by dispersing the seeds, they regenerate forests and, in turn, their own food supplies.

 Discovered in 1974, this slice of a limb of a Douglas Fir holds the first nest of a Marbled Murrelet to be found in North America, providing important clues about the nesting habits of these small birds. They fly 25 miles or more inland to nest in trees 200 to 2,000 years old, with limbs wide enough for both a landing pad and a nesting platform. 
The nest is a mere depression in the moss or leaf litter. The parents share the care of their young, trading shifts before dawn, and fledglings make their first journey to the sea alone. Marbled Murrelets are disappearing along with the old growth forests that are home to these ancient trees.

Brown Booby )Sula leucogaster brewsteri): Collected from San Jorge Bay, Georges Island, State of Sonora, Mexico, 1925 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology
Egret feathers camouflage this grassy dome shaped nest built by a female Social Flycatcher. Recent immigrants to the Rio Grande Valley, their range extends to Paraguay. They attach their nests to bushes, trees, vines, and dead branches, and often over water on tree snags and pilings. They also adopt abandoned houses, bridges, signposts, utility poles, and even railroad trestles.

With large eyes ringed in orange, yellow-spotted chests, and orange legs and feet, Spotted Nightingale-thrushes are a striking member of the genus of Catharus thrushes. In spite of these markings, they can be extremely hard to find, staying hidden in the understory of the forests of the Central American highlands and the Andes, where they feed terrestrially and nest year-round.
The female builds the nest using moss, lichen, and leaves, binding them with rootlets and grasses to form a deep, thick-walled cup, often woven onto a supporting vertical branch, with trailing foliage to disguise its shape.

Spotted Nightingale-thrush (Catharus dryas harrisoni): Collected from Cerro Baul, State of Oaxaca, Mexico, 1968 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology

Pictures were taken by photographer Sharon Beals for her book Nests
Many of the photos are also on display now through May 2014 at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C.

Cuban Emerald (Chlorostilbon ricordii): Collected from Andros Island, Bahamas, West Indies, 1988 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology

Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps): Collected from Sierra La Mojina, State of Chihuahua, Mexico, 1961 The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology

Akekee (Loxops caeruleirostris): Collected from Kokee State Park, Kauai, Hawaii, 1970 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology

Golden-hooded Tanager (Tangara larvata): Collected from Helechales, East of Fiala, Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica, 1972 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology

Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis): Collected from East of Durán, Guayas Province, Ecuador, 1991 The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology

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