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Building A Fire: Bird’s Nest 101

Building A Fire: Bird’s Nest 101

When I was asked to write an article on buiding a fire, I thought sure, but why? I mean, I have seen many articles on friction fires, and fires with flint and steel, so why do I need to tell people what to do when building a fire, along with how to make a birds nest? Well it seems it hasn’t been done.

I looked into some other publications that I read, and nothing … I couldn’t find one thing written about building a fire, starting with a good nest, how to hold the coal and blow it into flame. Now I don’t claim to be an expert on building a fire, but I do promise to do my best to explain it from my point of view and maybe we can learn something together!

Most people, myself included, when building a fire, with a friction starter and the like, will make a small nest from Jute Twine. That’s not a bad thing in my book, heck it’s a great thing…because jute will take a coal, and blow into flame extremely well. My problem comes into the idea that we say we OWN a primitive skill, and we are building a fire 100% primitive. I know some people are going to expect to see me make a bow drill with all natural cordage now, and I’m game for trying, but what I mean is what happens when your kit gets soaked, and you have to make a friction fire, or even build a fire with flint and steel, and the jute twine is dripping wet? Let’s take a look at what the experts do when building a birds nest – the birds themselves.

If you are lucky to find an abandoned nest to use when building a fire, take a look at it before you set it aflame. Look at how it’s constructed, and how it’s layered…the very design the birds use for warmth and comfort can be applied to a great nest for blowing a flame. First thing you will notice is the inside of the nest is usuallysomething soft and fluffy to give comfort to the newborn chicks when they hatch. Cat-tail fluff is great for this, as well as thistle pods, and if you live in a farming community, wild cotton balls.

The next layer we see is a little larger and firmer items, such as grass, and long dried leaves such as dead cat-tail leaves. I have even seen old newspaper ripped up and placed in this layer. Next is the outer shell in most nests. This will consist of toothpick sized pieces of twigs and in some cases pine needles. All of this is for smaller birds, but that’s ok, because the nest they make is perfect for building a fire. So let’s see if we can recreate what Mother Nature has perfected.

When I am going on walks I always have a small bag hanging on my side to collect tinder and kindling in, as well as any odd items I come across. I’ll grab the tops of dried long grasses, pine straw that has been laying in the sun for a while and is dried, even river birch bark. If you wander near a cotton field you may find some plants have grown along the ditch and can be accessed without breaking any laws. I have a handful of cotton that I picked up in this way in my fire kit now. I have access to bamboo and scraping the outside of this amazing grass (yes bamboo is a grass) will yield some of the best tinder I have ever found, either for a ferro rod, or a birds nest. Anything thin, light, and dry is what we want to gather when building a fire.

I start my nest by laying the toothpick sized sticks down in a criss cross pattern. Make sure you do this on a dry surface! I then crush some river birch bark and pine needles together in my hand, and lay this on top of the sticks, and work the two together like I was kneading dough, just enough to get all the items fused a little. Now I take the cotton fluff, or cat-tail fluff and work it into the grass, and long leaves or bamboo shavings to make a ball.

This ball will be pressed into the fingers with your thumbs, use a motion like you would if you were separating your cards in your hand at a poker match. This will combine and break up the fibers into smaller groups increasing the surface area. Remember the Triangle of Fire? This applies here as well. The coal is the ignition source, the fluff, and grasses are the fuel, so we need air to help it burn. The more surface area we can create by crushing and folding the grasses and fluff in, the better it will take to flame when we blow the coal in it.

After you have a good hand-sized bowl of fluff, add it to the pine and twigs, and knead this just enough to form a bowl again, and incorporate all the tinders into one mass. I like to make a bowl, and then close one end, or sideoff so that it’s egg-shaped. This gives me a good hand-hold that I can use without fear of burning myself, and allows me to control the tightness of the nest around the coal at the same time. Remember, when building a fire, you’re going to want the coal in the center of the nest, and you are going to pinch it closed to hold in as much of the heat as you can, but you want to be able to move air in to keep the coal alive. It’s a gentle balance, so take your time, and make sure there are no holes in the nest. The LAST thing you want to do is place a coal in it and blow it right through the nest in a couple of puffs.

I know this seems like a lot of detail about something so small, but when building a fire, this could be the link between you and a cold night, or a cold dinner. Experiment with different materials in your area, and see what is most available, and what works best for you. And don’t forget to take the seasons into account, because not everything grows year round, and some of it isn’t a viable option during the summer months.

As I mentioned above, I have access to a large amount of bamboo, and it works great for nest material, as well as tinder by itself, so that is my go to resource for fires as of right now. In your neck of the woods it might be long leaf grasses such as wheat grass. Whatever the case may be where you live, PRACTICE PRACTICE PRACTICE! Waiting until you’re soaking wet and freezing is not the time to learn how to do these skills. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your remarks and comments.


By Ken Seal III, Self Reliance Illustrated, Issue No. 6, Jan/Feb 2012 – Edited by The Pathfinder Store

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