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Conserving the Nature of America
The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.
Identification of Large Nests
Who made that large nest? Here you will find information to help you identify eagle nests, as well as nests that are commonly mistaken for eagle nests.
Note: Although Golden Eagles are present in the Midwest during certain times of the year, there are currently no reported golden eagle nests in the Midwest.
Things to know:
The best time to identify eagle and other raptor nests is in the spring before trees grow their leaves.
Keep a distance from all bird nests when conducting surveys, photography, or wildlife watching.
Eagle nests are are considered active as soon as eagles return for the season and nest building/maintenance begins, even if no eggs are laid.
Eagle nests and nest trees are protected year-round from removal.
Non-eagle nests are protected by federal law when eggs or chicks are present.
Bald Eagle Nests
Eagle nests in the Midwest are usually built in mature trees, such as white pine or cottonwood trees. They can also be built on other trees such as aspen spruces, firs, oaks, or hickories. Eagles may also build/use nests in snags (dead trees), transmission lines and communication towers.
The nests are usually built in a supportive crotch of the tree, typically below the highest point of the canopy, and tend to be deeper with larger sticks than other raptor nests.
Eagle nest can vary in size greatly. They are usually about 5-9 feet in diameter, 3-5 feet deep, and composed of large sticks. Eagles add to the nests every year, and the depth of the nest can reach up to 8 feet.
Eagles will use these nests year after year; nests can, reach 1,000-2,000 pounds. As with all raptor nests, an occupied eagle’s nest may have whitewash (excrement) on the tree trunk and under the nest tree, although this is not always obvious. Active nests may also have feathers, bones, and small animal carcasses under them.
Eagles may build multiple nests within their territory; some nests will never be completed and will remain small. Eagles may also build and use nests on transmission lines and communication towers.
When is an Eagle Nest an Eagle Nest?
The following are all considered eagle nests eagle nests and are protected under the Eagle Act:
Any nest constructed by an eagle, even if the nest is never finished or used.
A nest built by another bird that is subsequently used by an eagle for nesting
A nest constructed by an eagle that is subsequently used by another species, such as owls or osprey.
Any of the above scenarios for nests on communication towers and transmission lines.
The eagle nesting season takes up 5-6 months of the year; eagles may start nesting as early as late January, and may still be using the nest as late as August.
Please see Nest Chronology of Bald Eagles in the Midwest for more detailed information.
Eagle Nests in Deciduous (Leafy) Trees:
Photos courtesy of Mags Rheude, USFWS (left) and MN DOT (right)
Eagle nest are quite large and visible from a distance, especially when leaves are off the trees. The tree on the left is in a cottonwood tree and still visible in the summer. The tree on the right is in an aspen tree in the winter. The head of an adult eagle sitting on the nest is visible.
Eagle Nests in Conifer (Evergreen) Trees:
Photos courtesy of US Good Solar (left) and Brenda Salseg (right)
Eagle nests in evergreen trees are more difficult to see, and often appear as a large dark mass near the trunk. Both nests are in white pine trees.
Eagle Nests Viewed From Below:
Photos courtesy of Mags Rheude, USFWS(left) and MN DOT (right)
Eagle nest have a base of large sticks resting on the tree branches, with softer nesting material being inside the crown of the nest. Eagle nests can grow large enough to cause trees to topple over in storms, as eagles add to the nests every year. Nests require multiple forking branches in order to support the weight.
Eagle Nest: Closeup
Photos courtesy of Mags Rheude, USFWS
An eagle nest in winter in a cottonwood tree, at a distance and zoomed in. The nest is supported in the fork of multiple strong branches and the bottom is built with large sticks.
Unfinished Eagle Nests:
Photos courtesy of Mags Rheude, USFWS
An eagle pair started this nest in a white pine but never finished it. Young eagles will often build "practice" nests are the time they reach breeding age (5 or 6 years old). This nest is easily mistaken for a hawk nest; however, wildlife biologists at Camp Ripley Army National Guard Facility track eagle pairs on site and observed the eagles building the nest. While this nest was never finished or used, it is still considered an eagle nest and is afforded the same protection as a fully built nest.
Osprey nests may resemble a flat or disorganized pile of large sticks. These nests tend to be smaller, but may become large as eagle nests. Osprey are relatively tolerant of human development and will readily nest on top of platforms, light posts, transmission towers, or the tops of broken trees. Osprey may use man-made materials, such as bailing twine or plastic bags. If the nest active, the nesting material may be covered in whitewash (excrement). Osprey usually nest above the crown of the tree and at the highest point of a tree or other structure. However, both eagles and osprey have been known to use each other’s nests. Osprey begin nesting in the Midwest March or April.
Osprey Nest on Human Built Structures:
Ospreys will often build nests on human made structures such as nesting platforms, cell towers, and stadium lights. Ospreys will also incorporate human made objects such as plastic and other garbage into their nests.
Osprey Nest in a Tree
Osprey will nest in trees, especially when there are no human built structures nearby. Osprey prefer trees with a broken top, which give them a clear view of the area around the nest.
Red-Tailed Hawk Nests
Red-tailed hawk nests are smaller than eagle or osprey nests, and can be as deep as or deeper than they are wide. They have a fairly tight construction, and the sticks that compose the nest tend to be smaller than those used for eagle or osprey nests (sticks generally 1-2 inches in diameter). Nests tend to be in the crown of tall trees that give the hawk good visibility. Red-tailed hawks may also nest on transmission line towers and billboards. Red-tailed hawks may being nesting in late February, although in the upper Midwest they may not lay eggs until mid-April.
Red-tailed hawks build much smaller nests than eagles with smaller sticks. The photo on the right shows the relative size of the hawk nest; this nest is not large enough to support eagle chicks once they are larger.
Crows can be found year round throughout the Midwest. Ravens, although not as common as crows, can be found nesting in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Ravens tend to nest on cliffs. Crow/raven nests are typically built out of small sticks, although they can consist of some grass material. Crow nests tend to be smaller than red-tailed hawk nests, built close to the trunk in the upper 1/3 of the nest tree. They are similar in size to squirrel nests (drays). Crow nests usually measure less than 2 feet in diameter, and can be up to a foot deep. They tend to have a fairly tight construction. Crows will begin nesting as early as March and as late as June.
Photos courtesy of Kaeli Swift, Corvid Research
A small crow nest in spring showing fairly loose construction (left); a larger crow nest with a tight construction and incorporating human-made materials (right). Dr. Swift, (holding nest) is a corvid researcher and holds a federal migratory bird research permit.
Great Horned Owls will usually use a nest built by another species, but may also nest in cavities. They may use nests made by Red-tailed Hawks, crows, herons, squirrels, or even eagles. Owls begin nesting in late February - April.
Owls will typically nest in tree cavities or will use nests of other birds. It is difficult to tell if a nest belongs to an owl without direct observation. This nest is too small and flimsy to support eagles.
Heron nests are almost always near water. Herons nest in a “Rookery” where many nests are present, individual nests are rare. Heron nests are composed of sticks, flat and broad, and resembling a thin platform. Nest will usually appear “messy” and “flimsy”. Herons begin nesting March or April.
Photos courtesy of Mary Stephanski, FWS, CC; (left); HDR, Inc (right).
Heron nests are almost always found in groups; they are flat and flimsy. These nests are too small and shallow to support bald eagle chicks.
Squirrel nests (or drays) can reach basketball size or larger. They are distinguished from bird nests by being made mostly of leaf and other “softer” vegetation matter (grasses, etc), and very few sticks. They are usually round shaped, and often look “messy”.
Squirrel nests lack the structure of a raptor nest; there is no bowl for chicks and would not support much weight.