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Researchers in Europe have found birds making nests from anti-bird spikes on buildings

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One human's trash just might be an avian's armoire. Urban birds have long used a wide assortment of building materials to build their nests - galvanized nails, barbed wire, even sheet music by BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Now a team from the Netherlands has documented a number of birds' nests around Europe that are built from anti-bird spikes. These are strips of metal spikes that people attach to the eaves of buildings to try and deter birds from roosting there. Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, was the lead author of the paper and joins us now. Mr. Hiemstra, thanks so much for being with us.

AUKE-FLORIAN HIEMSTRA: Thanks so much.

SIMON: Can you describe a few of these nests for us?

HIEMSTRA: The very first nest I saw was a nest from Antwerp, in Belgium. And we also describe it in the paper as the biggest nest we found, a nest that included more than 1,500 nasty, metal, anti-bird spikes.

SIMON: (Laughter).

HIEMSTRA: Fifteen hundred - so that's like a bunker for birds.

SIMON: How do the birds wrestle them out of the material?

HIEMSTRA: Well, that's interesting. This nest was made in the courtyard of a hospital, and we also went to the roof of the hospital. And there were a lot of bird spikes. But all the bird spikes closest to the nest, they were gone, and just a trail of glue was present. But, yeah, I think the magpie ripped them off the roof and used them in its own nest. And actually, just making a nest out of anti-bird spikes is already hilarious. But they even use them in a very smart way as magpies do not only have a bowl...

SIMON: Yeah.

HIEMSTRA: ...A nest bowl, but also have a roof over their nest. And for this roof, normally, they search for thorny branches to actually prevent predation from the nest, so to ward off predators. However, in cities, there are not a lot of thorny branches, but there are a lot of anti-bird spikes.

SIMON: Yeah.

HIEMSTRA: And this is, I think, crazy. They use the bird spikes in the same way as they were intended to be used, namely to ward off other birds.

SIMON: Oh, that's hilarious.

HIEMSTRA: And I think that's just perfect.

SIMON: My gosh. Now, any birds more likely than others to use these spikes?

HIEMSTRA: Yeah. So a few species in particular use these spikes. We have examples of crows using them and examples of magpies using them. And so this is within the family of the corvids, and those are very smart birds, birds which are very intelligent, which are also using tools. They can do a lot of problem-solving. And so they also solved the problem of having no spikes in the city centers.

SIMON: Don't they have to worry about getting hurt using these - what I'll refer to as hazardous materials?

HIEMSTRA: Yeah. So the whole outside of the nest is covered with these bird spikes. But within the nest, it's this very safe place made with soft material. So the young ones are safe. But I think the - well, the parents may struggle a little bit to handle the material, but they managed to find a way...

SIMON: Wow.

HIEMSTRA: ...Which really reflects how animals now are adapting to our urban city life.

SIMON: Mr. Hiemstra, I'm moved to say, good for them.

HIEMSTRA: Yeah. Yeah. I think it's magnificent to see these rebellious birds actually fighting back. And actually, when you walk through a city, suddenly, you see them everywhere. And actually, like, it's a little bit sad, I think...

SIMON: Yeah.

HIEMSTRA: ...That we are so actively trying to fight our urban biodiversity while we also could, like, embrace those beautiful animals.

SIMON: Well, I'm impressed by your work, to be sure, but mostly the birds. Thank you.

HIEMSTRA: Thanks so much.

SIMON: Auke-Florian Hiemstra is a biologist in Leiden, the Netherlands. Thanks so much.

HIEMSTRA: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIRD ON THE WIRE")

LEONARD COHEN: (Singing) Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.