Engineers are Studying Birds' Nests

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Talkin’ Birds.

When Talkin’ Birds Senior Producer Debbie Blicher was in fourth grade, her class was challenged to design a vehicle that would allow an egg to survive a two-story drop without cracking. She and her partner had both watched birds build nests, so they cradled their egg in loosely packed, shredded paper—a sort of spherical nest—inside a paper lunch bag (even then, Debbie recycled!). Theirs was the only egg that survived the drop.

In view of this triumph, Debbie is pleased to learn that Dr. Hunter King, a University of Akron experimental soft matter physicist and assistant professor of polymer science and biology, has received a three-year, $260,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation to study “the collective mechanical interactions of disordered, randomly packed elastic filaments.” In other words, twigs packed together. In other, other words: birds’ nests.

Birds’ nests have to withstand weather changes, swaying trees, repeated impact from birds sitting on or entering them, and other mechanical factors—all without damaging the eggs they contain. As King puts it, “Nests are lightweight, soft, flexible and shock-absorbent, but made up of hard, durable components – properties which are ideal for packaging materials.”

In the abstract submitted to the NSF, King and his collaborators from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) state that they’re investigating how birds’ nests hold their shape as a “result of a subtle interplay between geometry, elasticity and friction” and point out that this question has not yet been thoroughly studied.

King’s graduate assistant Nicholas Weiner is conducting a series of experiments to analyze the behavior of randomly packed filaments in response to various perturbations. The collaborators at Illinois will attempt to duplicate his findings through computer simulations

Understanding how nests work could fuel advances in civil engineering and architecture, among other disciplines—not to mention packaging.

King plans to collaborate with the Akron Zoo to set up cameras and record birds building their nests: the original engineers at work.

So the next time a kid you know is participating in the “egg drop” challenge, think of birds nests and Dr. Hunter. And who knows? Maybe the kid will grow up to get an NSF grant. (Or to be Talkin’ Birds Senior Producer.)