Building for a changing world?


Nest building is a key reproductive behaviour in birds and yet we know almost nothing about the decision making underpinning it. For example, while birds of the same species appear to build different nests in different geographic regions, it is not clear whether this is a result of birds making decisions in response to environmental conditions, or whether the variation is due to natural selection on nest structure. This project has, then, one key question: do birds build a nest in response to local temperatures and, if so, which temperatures (today’s, yesterdays’, the average of last week’s and so on)? It may be, however, that they change where or when they build if the temperature rises or falls. Importantly, we need to know how investment in building impacts on reproductive success: if, for example, females (n blue tits it is the female that is the builder) take longer to build, do they pay a cost in the number of eggs/fledglings they produce or do they benefit because their nest is more substantial? Across the three years of the project, we will be able to differentiate between responses to recent temperatures and memory for previous reproductive events (about 30% of females return each spring). We will also use an experimental manipulation using zebra finches building in temperature-controlled rooms to examine directly the impact of temperature on building, nest structure and reproductive success. We can manipulate experience of temperature both in building adults and in the young hatched into different temperatures to examine building decision-making and its impacts on individual growth rate and reproductive success. Finally, we will use a large-scale comparative analysis to examine the role that environmental temperature has played in the evolution of nest building, in both nest structure and location.

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Image Captions

Figure 1. Blue tit at box in St Andrews, a nest, female on nest, iButton on the bottom of a box.

Figure 2. A male zebra finch building in the laboratory; a nest built at 14°C.

All photos taken by members of Healy’s research group.


Fieldwork on building by blue tits would be conducted in and around St Andrews, laboratory experiments conducted in Deakin (with Buchanan, co-tutelle partner) and comparative analyses under instruction from Sally Street.

Project Timeline

Year 1

In Yr 1, there will be collection of data on nest building by blue tits building in boxes in and around St Andrews, Fife coupled with deconstruction and analysis of nest materials.
Delivering a poster at a national conference.

Year 2

In Year 2, in addition to the collection of the nest building data, temperature-manipulation experiments with captive and wild caught zebra finches will be conducted in the temperature-controlled rooms at Deakin University (with Prof Kate Buchanan).
Delivering a poster at an international conference.

Year 3

In Year 3, in addition to the collection of the nest building data, there will be a comparative analysis conducted in collaboration with Dr Sally Street (Durham).
Delivering a talk at an international conference.

Year 3.5

This part of the PhD will contain data analyses and writing up results into papers.

& Skills

There are multiple kinds of training that will be intrinsic to this project: field skills acquired as a result of monitoring nest boxes, identifying birds, ringing birds; experimental design skills implemented in building experiments in the laboratory; comparative analyses of a large data set of avian building available to Healy and Street; data analyses of the field and experimental analyses; writing papers; presenting data at lab group meetings (Healy has a weekly lab group meeting), national and international conferences; attendance at seminars (multiple available at all three sites).

References & further reading

Breen, A., Guillette, L.M. & Healy, S.D. 2016. What can nest-building birds teach us? Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 11 83-102.
Bailey, I. E., Muth, F., Morgan, K. V., Meddle, S.L. & Healy, S.D. 2015. Birds build camouflaged nests. Auk, 132, 13-17.
Healy, S.D., Morgan, K.V. & Bailey, I.E. 2015. Nest-construction behaviour. In Nests and Eggs: Incubating New Ideas about Avian Reproduction (Ed. by C. Deeming and J. Reynolds). Pp. 16-28. Oxford University Press.
Bailey, I.E., Morgan, K.V., Bertin, M., Meddle, S.L. & Healy, S.D. 2014. Physical cognition: birds learn the structural efficacy of nest material. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 1784, 20133225.

Further Information

More information at:

and via contact with Sue Healy:

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