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The purpose of a bird nest is to provide warmth for the eggs, prevent the eggs from rolling away and to provide shelter. Nests come in all shapes and sizes and birds build them in lots of different places. The first bird nests likely were built on the ground, by a bird scraping away at the earth to create a cavity. A multitude of birds still use these basic constructions, called scrapes today.
One may assume that all ground nesting birds are flightless, due to the perceived advantages of nesting high above. However, not all ground nesting birds are flightless and not all flightless birds nest on the ground. Ostrich, emu, tinamou and pelicans all lay their eggs in a scrape. Because eggs on the ground are vulnerable to predation, flightless birds typically spend more time guarding the nest than birds who nest in trees. Kiwis are ground nesters too, but they lay their eggs in a burrow, rather than a scrape.
Shore Birds Who Nest on the Ground
The majority of shorebirds can fly, but their habitat typically is not well stocked with trees. Terns, gulls and puffins all nest on the ground, but they typically do so in areas inaccessible for potential predators, such as on ledges. Some penguins, such as the gentoo penguin, nest on the ground, but penguins typically carry their eggs themselves.
Ducks, geese and swans all make their nests on the ground. This is because their young are all precocial, meaning they are quite developed and capable of walking and swimming straight after hatching. This ability to leave the nest from birth means that the mother is always available to look after her chicks and deter would-be predators.
Nesting for Game Birds
Quail, pheasant, partridge -- all of whom are weak fliers -- nest on the ground. They typically nest in grain fields, where they can find shelter and seclusion. However, some quail have been recorded nesting in open spaces in orchards.
Other Ground Nesting Birds
It is not just lack of flight or trees that cause birds to nest on the ground. Peregrine falcons can fly and live in wooded habitats, but they choose to nest on the ground in scrapes. In fact, they make multiple scrapes before laying eggs and choose which one to use only right before the eggs are ready. Bustards, the world’s heaviest bird of flight, nest on the ground too and use camouflage to protect their nests from would-be predators.
- Fernbank Science Center: Nesting Ecology
- Eastern Kentucky University: Avian Reproduction: Nests
- Live Science: Fun Facts about Ostriches
- Animal Diversity Web: Brown Kiwi
- Penguins: Gentoo Penguin
- The University of Illinois; Wildlife Medical Clinic: Shorebirds and Water Fowl
- Ocean Portal: Pelican Nests in Mangroves
- Library of the University of Illinois: Quail and Pheasant Studies in an Orchard County
- US Forest Service: Falco Peregrinus
- Daily Mail: The Bustard is Back
- Anup Shah/Photodisc/Getty Images