Bird nests vary just as much as the individuals creating them. They can be carefully designed and as intricate as a piece of fine jewelry (I see you, hummingbirds and orioles). They can be massive and bulky, perfectly camouflaged, or as sloppy as your hair when you wake up late for work. In this article we’ll be discussing those birds that lay their eggs on the ground, or ground nesting birds.
Ground nests are just one of many categories of nests, and the nest designs within this category are variable. Some are made in a gravel driveway, others are familiar cup nests. Some are just scraped out patches in the dirt. Different styles for different needs of different species.
That’s right. These kinds of nests are not made by one specific type of bird – say, flightless species.
Although that would be a reasonable assumption,
a nest on the ground doesn’t indicate it’s necessarily made by a species who is flightless.
But if a bird can fly, why wouldn’t it nest in a tree?
A valid argument, but just because a bird can fly doesn’t mean there’s even trees around to fly into. And it certainly doesn’t mean they would want to, even if there were—especially if the food they eat is on the ground.
Now, if we consider all the reasons a bird might nest on the ground, not just flightlessness, it adds hundreds of possible species to the list, not just the 60 or so who can’t take off.
Because of this vast number of birds, for everyone’s sanity this article will be divided up into species groups, with a few individuals from each group highlighted.
If you come across a possible ground nest, this article will be a good framework to narrow down from what group it possibly is from and which sub-group within the main group it could be in.
Here we go!
13 examples of ground nesting birds with pictures
Examples of shorebirds that nest on the ground
Shorebirds are a prime example of birds who live in a habitat that isn’t exploding with trees, therefore they must nest on the ground. Although they all aren’t necessarily living on “shores”, this group is defined by their habitat, which is essentially open space without significant canopy cover.
1. American Avocet
These nests consist of a scrape that is usually lightly lined with grass, feathers, pebbles, or other small objects. They build their nests on an island or dike. Because they nest in areas with no shady vegetation, their eggs are threatened to overheat. They mitigate this by dipping their bellies in water and cooling the eggs off while incubating.
While technically classified as shorebirds, these birds are often found nesting in gravel well away from any natural bodies of water. However they are not against scraping out an area in a field or pasture (livestock owners will see this a lot.)
The mating pair perform a scrape ceremony when picking out a nest site and often mate right after. As mentioned earlier, these guys like to nest in gravel or add gravel to their scrape. A study actually showed that they prefer light colored rocks opposed to dark colors for their nests.
I see Killdeer running around the large gravel parking lot at my work. They lay their eggs almost right out in the open, and if you get too close to a nest you can be sure their will be a mom or a dad there to let you know. Many times they will even aggressively chase you away. It’s happened to me before!
Examples of wading birds that nest on the ground
These ground nesting birds tend to spend their time around freshwater—ponds, rivers, bogs, mud flats, marshes, and flooded areas. Most prefer very wet habitats, oftentimes with standing water. They wouldn’t really be “wading” birds without some shallows to get through, right?
3. Virginia Rail
This wading bird creates a bowl-like nest woven from marsh material, including sedges, cattails, and fine grass. They can be found at the base of taller vegetation like needlerush or bulrush. The ground here is usually really moist, and water can get up to an inch deep.
4. Sandhill Crane
Nests built by this species can be found in small bogs, marshes, wet meadows, and other moist, isolated habitats, especially those with standing water. These long-legged birds will craft a platform from marsh vegetation like cattails, sedges, bulrushes, burr reeds, and grass. They’ll add a cup-shaped hollow that is lined with sticks and twigs. Early in the season they will use dried plant materials for building and will add greener plants later.
Check out some facts about Sandhill Cranes.
Examples of waterfowl that nest on the ground
Like wading birds, waterfowl spend a lot of time in and around water. They rely heavily on wetlands across the country for nesting and food. Seeing groups of waterfowl in an area (single species or mixed) indicates a healthy wetland. If the season is right, you may find nests and little minis swimming or walking around. Since the babies are precocial (they are ready to go when they hatch and can often swim and walk within a few hours) nests way up high aren’t necessary.
5. Canada Goose
These large, familiar, and ground nesting birds have chased off many curious kids when they’ve gotten too close to their nests. Canada Geese build their cup nests from lichens, moss, grass, and other plant materials. They are found near water in a place where they can see their surroundings well.
6. American Wigeon
Unlike a lot of other waterfowl, these birds prefer to choose nest sites that are on dry ground and relatively far away from water (40-1000 ft.) They will nest in grasslands and fields that have tall grasses or shrubs. American Wigeons females will make a depression in the ground and line it with grasses, marsh materials like reeds and cattails, and down feathers.
Examples of game birds that nest on the ground
- Grouse + Ptarmigan
Game birds consist of species that are generally weak fliers. Although many of these species like good coverage and seclusion, that’s not necessarily the case for all.
7. Ruffed Grouse
This game bird builds its nest at the base of a tree, rock, or stump in an area with good visibility to see predators. They create a simple, hollowed bowl from leaves on the ground. They will pluck vegetation from around the nest site and line their nest with it.
8. Scaled Quail
These birds build their nests on the ground but prefer to do so in a place where they’ll have cover, such as in shrubs, cactus, yucca, or small trees. Sometimes they will nest under agricultural equipment if near a farm. The nest is simple and is made of leaves and grass, constructed to be wide and shallow.
- Wood Thrush
- Hermit Thrush
- Emberizine Sparrows
9. Orange-crowned Warbler
This little warbler builds her nest somewhere covered by vegetation. They can be found in rock cracks, on moss, or nestled in fern fronds. Their nests have a leafy foundation and a woven outer layer of leaves, twigs, bark, stems, moss, or wool. The inside will be lined with finer grasses and animal hair from small mammals or large ones, like horses.
10. Hermit Thrush
This spotted songbird also prefers cover for her nest which can be in the form of small trees or shrubs, or berry and fern thickets. The nest will be crafted from pine needles and tiny pieces of wood with lichen and mud on the outside. For a lining, she will use finer plant materials and willow catkins.
Other ground nesting birds
- Gulls, Terns, Skimmers
- Pelicans, boobies
- Burrowing Owls
This nightjar takes simplicity to a whole new level. Their nests consist of a slight scrape in the ground, and that’s it. No crafting of plant materials or placement of rocks or mud. They will just lay their eggs directly onto the ground, whether it’s sand, stone, or leaf litter. The Whip-poor-will is found mostly in the eastern half of the country, but their population has been declining in recent years. They are well known for their summer songs that actually sound like “Whip-poor-will”.
12. Common Tern
In order to provide cover for their chicks, these terns will pick areas with scattered vegetation. They will nest in colonies on sand, gravel and shells very close to the water. They will make a scrape on the ground and add dead vegetation that’s been washed on shore, as well as shells, stones, and bone fragments. Unfortunately, even plastic has been found in their nests. When the waters threaten to get too high and might flood the nest, the parents will add more plant or bone fragments to it to raise it.
13. Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl is one of the only species of raptors in the world that nests in the ground, and the only that actually nests in a hole in the ground. Hence the name “Burrowing Owl”. These birds can definitely do some serious digging when creating their nest under the ground, but they typically will take over an abandoned burrow left by a prairie dog or other animal. That way most of the work is done for them.
Burrowing Owls are most common in the western half of the United States, though there is a small breeding population of these owls in Florida.
It’s easy to assume that nests in trees are the norm, but that’s not the case with these ground nesting birds. As you can see, the variety of birds that lay eggs on the ground is pretty wide, and even more variability can be found if we discussed even half of the species that nest on the ground!
So make sure to watch where you step!