Two birds in the mouth of a fish

If you live in an urban area, you may think you need to take a trip to experience nature. The Funky Nests in Funky Places contest wants you to get out in your neighborhood and see that you're wrong. Look around and you'll find birds nesting in surprising places — often very close to home.

With entry categories including Funniest, Cutest and Most Inconvenient, past contestants have found nests in all kinds of human-made places, including statues, store signs, car tires, potted plants and light fixtures. "A lot of participants were shocked when they opened their grills in the spring to find an enormous nest with a little tiny area with eggs," says Karen Ann Purcell, project leader for the Celebrate Urban Birds project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Open Your Mind (and Your Eyes)

When you think of a bird's nest, you probably imagine that classic cup-shaped structure made of twigs and nestled in the branches of a tree. But birds make all kinds of nests in various types of places, and the kind of real estate they're looking for is easy to find in the objects humans build.

Some birds nest on the ground — you may find a killdeer in plain sight but perfectly camouflaged among the gravel of a driveway. Many birds nest in cavities or crevices in cliffsides or trees, and plenty of human structures provide similar spaces: statues, the space behind an air conditioner, stoplights, a car motor and definitely those barbecue grills. Sometimes those places are even preferred. "In many of the photos, you'll see plenty of trees nearby, but the birds chose the artificial materials," Purcell says.

Practice Safety First!

Of course, as much as you might want to get a good look at that funky nest, it's important to keep the birds safe while you're looking. You don't need to get close enough to disturb them to get a photo; the surroundings are part of the point.

Definitely don't ever handle the nest, and choose your times carefully. "Don't do it early in the morning — that's when they tend to lay their eggs," Purcell says. Also don't visit a nest in bad weather, because you don't want to scare the parents off from incubating their eggs when they'll get cold quickly. If you visit the same nest repeatedly, take a different route so you don't leave a trail for predators to follow.

Bird in nest in toy truck

Also remember to stick to observing. Resist the urge to be helpful, even if a bird builds a nest in what you think is a terrible place. If nothing else, you're unlikely to change its mind. "We had one person who had a robin build a nest on a parked car tire while he was at work," Purcell says. "He carefully removed it, and the next day the bird did it again, and did it for nine consecutive days."

Even in nature, only about half of birds' nests are successful. They keep trying till they get it right, and they need to learn what doesn't work. "They have to make their own mistakes," Purcell says. "Failure is part of it — figuring out what is successful and what is not." What's more, many bird species are protected, and it's illegal to interfere with their nests, even with the best of intentions.

On the very rare occasion that a nest has been built somewhere completely problematic (like in a car that you need for your transportation), Purcell suggests calling a wildlife rehabilitator for advice on your situation.

Seagull in flower pot

Keep in mind that efforts to "help" nesting birds are usually counterproductive, Purcell says. People will often want to put seed nearby, but this can attract predators to the nest — and for all you know, those baby birds may be insect-eaters. The parents choose a place partly because they know how to find food nearby, so leave them to do their job. If you really want to help, plant a bird-friendly garden that provides food and cover, keep your cat inside, and maintain a respectful distance.

Take Action

Get out there now and take those photos, because not only is the July 1 deadline  approaching fast, but also, birds don't live in their nests indefinitely. They use them only to raise their young, and they get that over with as fast as they can because it's easy for predators to find them there. The baby birds that are there today might not be there tomorrow.

And don't worry about your photography skills — that's not the point. "It's more a challenge to engage people in going outdoors and looking in their neighborhoods," Purcell says. "The part that I like best about the contest is the stories that people tell when they submit their entries. That's what we're looking for, not professional photography. We're interested in people making discoveries and being excited about sharing them." And even if photography isn't your forte, you can still participate. Poems, videos and stories are accepted, too.

Check out last year's entries, and submit your own to win prizes like Celestron binoculars, Pennington bird feeders, DVDs, CDs, Cornell Lab of Ornithology Membership Gift Packets and more.