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Avian Inspiration
Does China’s National Stadium, the “Bird’s Nest,” live up to its nickname? Audubon finds out.

The Beijing National Stadium, nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest,” April 2008.
Tom Caswell. From Wikipedia; originally posted to Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

It may be safe to say that never in history have birds’ nests been on as many people’s minds as they were last month. According to poll estimates, about a billion people—or 15 percent of the world’s population—watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, whose centerpiece was Beijing’s shiny new National Stadium, an architectural marvel more commonly known by its nickname: the “Bird’s Nest.”

Covering more than 250 million square feet and built with 42,000 tons of steel, is the National Stadium really an accurate, if oversized, testament to avian architecture? To answer this question, Audubon enlisted the help of Mike Hansell, professor emeritus at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and author of the books Built by Animals: The Natural History of Animal Architecture and Bird Nests and Construction Behaviour.

The stadium’s exterior is a lattice of entwined steel columns with an elliptical, undulating shape that dips inward toward a large opening in the center—surely, an unconventional structure shouting for some sort of descriptive analogy. The specific association with bird nests came straight from the design team, headed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. When they entered their plans in the stadium design competition, they wrote, “The structural elements mutually support each other and converge into a grid-like formation—almost like a bird's nest with its interwoven twigs.”

Hansell is skeptical of the comparison. “Most birds will be unconvinced by these claimed similarities,” he wrote in an e-mail after Audubon provided him with details about the stadium. When we think of a bird’s nest, many of us probably do envision a bowl-shaped structure made from twigs, which some birds do use to build their nests. But that configuration is anything but typical. Some nests are roofed, and others open from below. And some birds don’t bother to construct their own: They use cavities in the ground or hollowed out of trees. The white tern even goes nest-less, perching its single egg directly on a branch. 

Invoking twigs—the bricks of avian housing—to describe the National Stadium is to ignore craftier builders out there. Hummingbirds typically use plant parts bound together by materials like spider silk, while self-reliant edible-nest swiftlets (yes, that’s how they’re known) build solely with their own mucus salivary secretions, said Hansell. Even for their plant-based nests, it is usually the more flexible grasses and leaves that birds weave among the twigs to act as the nest’s mortar.

In terms of weatherproofing, the National Stadium’s designers also found inspiration in nests. Wide holes left by the stadium’s steel maze have been strategically stuffed with inflated cushions to ward off rain, wind and sun, “just as birds stuff the spaces between the woven twigs of their nests,” according to the designers’ description. Indeed, the rook, a member of the crow family, does pack grass and mud into the crannies of its nest to “weatherproof” the eggs inside, according to Hansell. Of course, that’s not the only way to weatherproof a nest: Birds in tropical rainforests, for example, sometimes use open, unlined structures, possibly so downpours can pass through them. 

To Hansell, the most interesting similarity between a humble bird’s nest and the hulking symbol of China’s “coming out” party is not where its designers suggest. “Most bird nests should be considered over-engineered if they last more than a few weeks,” he wrote. Natural selection would dictate they be spartan, serving simply as temporary egg housing. Recently, however, researchers have collected evidence suggesting that nests may also function as more expensive displays to help attract mates. Some female birds, like penduline tits and magpies, seem to prefer males that build larger nests or put more effort into building, for example. One study even showed that, in a species of fish, females gravitate to males that ornament their nests. Wrote Hansell, in reference to this study: “The inside of the nest is a container but the outside is a display; not unlike the Bird’s Nest stadium”—which is, essentially, a costly monument built less for function and more as a “unique historical landmark.”

Based on Hansell’s analysis, it seems that the National Stadium does evoke the nest building behaviors of some birds, though it’s clear that it by no means speaks to all of nature’s variety. But the stadium still isn’t an ideal tribute to avifauna due to one ironic twist: No actual birds are allowed to nest on it. To prevent its thin outer plastic membrane from being punctured, engineers rigged a system to dissuade birds from seeking respite on the stadium’s enormous facade.


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