Next time you find yourself, in a moist, mulchy forest, keep an eye out for these tiny organisms. With their cup-like structures that contain a few white pods, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were minuscule bird’s nests. However, you’d be pretty far off the mark.
If you spend a lot of time in the great outdoors, you may have noticed these small bird-nest-like objects perched on decaying wood. They’re most often seen in wet, dimly lit areas. Moreover they aren’t limited to one area of the world and are in fact commonplace across the globe.
The curiosities in question have fairly unique characteristics. They feature a cup that resembles a small bird’s nest. This is usually white, gray or brown in color. And contained within the little bowl are egg-shaped objects. These things are tiny, with a diameter of just a quarter of an inch.
While these nest-like organisms can be found all year round in moderately warm parts of the world, they’re most abundant during the fall. That’s perhaps down to the fact that the season produces the moist, murky conditions they thrive on, when there’s a glut of rotting vegetation such as leaves on the forest floor.
When these bizarre beings first emerge, their insides are often hidden within a furry, yellow covering. This subsequently splits to display the collection of egg-like objects within. It’s a strange sight to behold. However, they’re so small that the phenomenon is easy to miss.
For those who’ve spotted one of the oddities in their gardens or when out and about, the objects’ resemblance to a bird’s nest probably hasn’t gone unnoticed. And while the items are incredibly small, there are in fact some avian species that do produce tiny structures to contain their eggs. One of them is the hummingbird.
Hummingbirds are among the smallest bird species in the world. At one end of the scale, even the biggest kind – which is aptly named the giant hummingbird – is just 8 inches long and weighs a minuscule 0.7 ounces. The smallest, meanwhile, is the bee hummingbird, which is little more than 2 inches long.
Given how tiny hummingbird species are, it will come as no surprise that the nests they build for their eggs are equally minute. In fact, hummingbird nests are so small that they can simply look to be miniature mounds wherever they’re located. Moreover, they’re often hidden in sheltered locations where they’re away from other creatures and the elements.
Commonly, hummingbird nests can be found between branches or sheltered in thick bushes. However, they are sometimes seen in all kinds of unexpected places. These include balancing on top of wind chimes and teetering on washing lines. Some have even been observed on top of cacti or within basketball nets.
Hummingbirds are cautious when picking a site for their nests, often landing on the spot several times to determine if it’s suitable. After all, it must be strong enough to withstand the nest’s weight, plus that of the hatchlings and their mother. Of course, since the birds are so small, a great many locations should be up to the job.
Once they’ve determined the perfect place for their eggs, female hummingbirds will take a great deal of time to perfect their nests. They usually make the cup-shaped structures out of twigs, feathers and other fibers, which are tied together with spider’s webs. This elastic silk ensures that the nest can expand as the hatchlings become older.
So not only are hummingbird nests a wonder to look at, but they’re also extremely practical. The cup’s interior edge provides shelter for eggs during severe weather. In addition, the mother will cover the outside with lichens and moss to ensure it blends in with the natural environment.
To begin with, hummingbird nests are tiny, measuring just one or two inches in diameter. That said, they’re so expertly crafted that a female will spend up to a week ensuring that the structure is ready to house her eggs. In fact, on occasions mothers don’t have time to complete their nests before laying, so they continue to build even after they’ve given birth.
Hummingbirds will only lay a maximum of two eggs in one go. Should a nest contain three or more, it’s likely that a couple of females have used it, as one mother would be unable to nourish all the hatchlings. Typically, a hummingbird will lay a single egg one day, then another in the days that follow. However, they’ll hatch together, as the mother won’t begin incubating them before both have been laid.
Given the size of the nest that their mother builds, you’d be right to assume that hummingbird eggs must be tiny. They are, with their dimensions being comparable to those of a jelly bean. With this in mind, they’re the smallest eggs of any bird species, despite weighing one-tenth of their mother’s body mass.
And to give these little white dots the best chance of hatching, females will spend around two-and-a-half weeks incubating their eggs, only leaving them in order to find food. The process may be extended in cold conditions. When the young do hatch, they’ll spend a month or so in the nest before departing.
However, while there are many similarities between hummingbird nests and the nest-like objects seen in moist, dimly lit places across the globe, some things don’t add up. For one, hummingbirds like to lay their eggs somewhere between 3 and 60 feet off the land. But these other organisms can often be found on the forest floor.
Furthermore, we’ve established that the mystery “nests” are abundant across the globe. By contrast, hummingbirds only lay their eggs in certain regions. These are confined to the so-called “New World” – South, Central and North America.
But while the items in question may resemble a small nest, you won’t see a bird coming to attend to the “eggs” they contain. In fact, these small objects are eventually ejected from the safety of their cups by rainfall. This might be disastrous for an unborn hatchling, of course. However, in this case, it’s exactly what nature intended.
That’s because the curious clusters aren’t eggs at all. They are, in fact, what are known as peridioles – spore-containing nodules belonging to the Nidulariaceae group of fungi. These particular peridioles come from the bird’s nest fungi, so called because of its likeness to certain avian creations.
Bird’s nest fungi form part of the gasteromycetes fungal group. Some common varieties include the Cyathus, Nidula, Crucibulum, Mycocalia and Nidularia. As we’ve already seen, they’re most often found in wet and shaded areas, where they live off decaying plant matter and animal detritus.
The unique “egg and cup” characteristics that form the bird’s nest fungi serve a very particular purpose. That’s because when heavy rainfall lands in the bowl formation, it forces the peridioles out of the fungi, hurling them as far as 4 feet – and hopefully into a suitable spot for them to emit their spores.
After being ejected from the bird’s nest fungi, an adhesive fiber attached to the peridioles gives them a good chance of sticking where they land. This takes the form of a thread a number of inches in length that uncoils when the spore sac is released from the “nest.”
Once the peridiole has become attached to something by the cord, it wraps itself around the object to secure it firmly in place. It may be bound to a piece of wood, some grass or even a man-made item. The pods then begin to dry up and subsequently emit their spores.
Put simply, spores are the means by which fungi reproduce – the same is true of algae, bacteria and plants as well – and are able to develop into new organisms without coming together with another reproductive cell. This means that they’re responsible for asexual reproduction. In fungi, all that spores require to germinate are the correct levels of nourishment, temperature and moisture.
Common places that bird’s nest fungi might take hold include the insides of dead tree trunks. They may also be found in any kind of wood that’s rotting. Alternatively, the mushrooms may spring up in cow and horse dung, as peridioles can remain intact even after being ingested by such animals.
If the conditions for spores to prosper are present, then they’ll grow into stringy structures called hyphae. As the hyphae expand, they form a branched collection of tube-shaped organisms known as the mycelium. These fuel themselves on moist, decomposing wood in order to grow.
As the mycelium expands, it hastens the decomposition of organic matter. And if different strains of reproducing mycelia come together, they can create another bird’s nest fungus. This is how the mushroom propagates itself, as fruiting organisms are formed.
It seems that many people enjoy the sight of bird’s nest fungi in their yards. Writing for the South Carolina-based publication The Island Packet in 2018, Vicky McMillan recalled her earliest run-in with the organism. In her article, she admitted, “The first time I saw bird’s nest fungus, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“Here was a replica of a tiny bird’s nest, dollhouse-sized, with minuscule ‘eggs’ inside it,” McMillan continued. “The whole thing was less than a quarter of an inch across, and it was attached, along with several other little ‘nests,’ to a piece of rotting wood.”
In fact, bird’s nest fungi are related to other kinds of mushrooms that we might find in our local shops. But while they aren’t thought to be harmful, people tend not to eat them. This is perhaps down to the tiny size of bird’s nest fungi, which means that they aren’t seen or aren’t appealing enough to get the human appetite going.
In 1975 Canadian fungi expert Harold J. Brodie released his book The Bird’s Nest Fungi. And in it, he established that they were “not sufficiently large, fleshy, or odorous to be of interest to humans as food.” Meanwhile, back in 1910, a tome entitled Minnesota Plant Studies claimed that the mushrooms were “not edible owing to their leathery texture.”
But while bird’s nest fungi isn’t really a viable food for humans, that’s not to say it doesn’t serve a broader purpose. Indeed, it acts as a natural composter, breaking down organic matter and returning it to the soil for plants to feed on. With this in mind, the fungus can help you to maintain a vibrant garden.
Bird’s nest fungi are a saprophyte, meaning that they survive on dead organic substances. In doing so, they extract nourishment from these materials and turn them into rich compost. As a result, they help to speed up the decaying process. In particular, bird’s nest fungus is adept at decomposing bark to create healthy soil.
Writing for the website Gardening Know How, “urban agriculturist” Bonnie L. Grant said of bird’s nest fungi, “Whenever I see one of these little nests in my bark mulch, it makes me smile. They are magical little organisms with a unique reproductive strategy and wonderful composting abilities.”
“Finding bird’s nest fungus in mulch is a common sight, as the fungi live off the organic substrate and turn it into rich soil,” Grant continued. “The cup shape is actually the fruiting body of the fungus and holds the lentil-shaped peridioles that contain the spores which are the basis of the saprophyte’s reproduction.”
So, given that bird’s nest fungi causes no damage to other plants and increases soil quality, there’s no need for gardeners to control it. Nonetheless, some horticulturists might find them unsightly. Alternatively, the spore pods might cause inconvenience if they become attached to homes or vehicles. When this happens, detaching them can prove to be troublesome.
As a result, some people prefer to limit the spread of these fungi or remove them from their yards completely. In order to reduce the number of the organisms, gardeners should rake the ground in order to disturb them. Decreasing moisture levels may also help.
Alternatively, introducing the likes of vinca or ivy can keep bird’s nest fungi numbers down as well. This will prevent the mushrooms from grasping onto matter beneath the layer of vegetation. It’s worth noting that the use of fungicides to keep bird’s nest fungi in check is not advocated.
To get rid of bird’s nest fungi completely, remove all the mushrooms you can find and put them in the trash in a plastic bag. When this is done, turn over the soil they were found in to prevent them from returning. Finally, spray the patch with soapy water and rub the mixture in.