Showy birds' nests have attracted many fans across the ages, from female bowerbirds to 19th-century young naturalists. The domiciles are a great resource for scientists, too, revealing the architects' feeding habits, genetic relationships and more, as described in the August issue of Scientific American.

To protect bird populations, the U.S. banned the taking of nests and eggs in 1918, and nest gathering is now illegal in most countries. Museum specimens—some of which have been photographed by Sharon Beals for Nests: 50 Nests and the Birds That Built Them (Chronicle Books, 2011)—are an alternative for researchers and others who wish to study these avian constructs. Beals' images, featured in this slide show, showcase the diversity of nest structure and materials, from an oriole's long nest, striped with hot pink twine, to a hummingbird's soft, miniscule cup fashioned of spider silk and lichen.

» View a slide show of Beals' bird nests photos