Bird nest riddle: Which shape came first?

Don’t assume simple cup-shaped architecture evolved before roofed structures

warbling vireo in a cup nest

OPEN QUESTION  A new study questions the intuitively obvious idea that simple cup nests, like this one of a warbling vireo, evolved before nests with roofs.

Gary L. Clark/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

WASHINGTON — To human thinking, songbird nests now seem to have evolved backwards: The most distant ancestor probably built complex, roofed structures. Simple open-top cup nests came later.

More than 70 percent of songbird species today build some form of that iconic open cup, evolutionary biologist Jordan Price said August 18 at the North American Ornithological Conference. Yet looking at patterns of nest style across recent bird family trees convinced him that the widespread cup style probably isn’t just a leftover from deepest bird origins.

Old bird lineages thought to have branched out near the base of the avian family tree tend to have plentiful roof-builders. Price, of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and coauthor Simon Griffith of Macquarie University in Sydney reconstructed probable nest styles for various branching points in the tree. That reconstruction suggests that open cups showed up independently four times among songbirds, such as in bowerbirds and honeyeaters, the scientists conclude. Also, here and there, some of the earlier cup builders reverted to roofs.

Price said he began musing about nest history while reveling in Australia’s birds during a sabbatical with Griffith. Evolutionary biologists have proposed that the broader Australasia region was probably the starting point for the rise of songbirds. Price said that it isn’t clear what drove a switch from protective roofs to what looks like the quick and dirty alternative of open cups.

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