Courtesy Russ Bauman, NestWatch.org
A nest box provides a place for birds to raise their children, such as these bluebirds in North Carolina.
I asked Robyn Bailey, Project Leader of NestWatch.org at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, a few questions about how to help backyard birds find a place to raise a family.
What are some of the reasons that someone would want to put out a nest box for backyard or wild birds?
Bailey: Nest boxes provide breeding opportunities for birds that nest in cavities. Many species, like chickadees and bluebirds, would naturally nest in a hole in a tree (created, perhaps, by a woodpecker), but if you don’t have a tree with a suitable hole in it, these birds cannot nest. Installing a nest box simply enables cavity-nesting birds to have a safe place in which to raise their young. Songbirds eat a lot of insects, and owls, like the Screech-owl or Barred Owl, provide excellent rodent control, so they are great to have around if you’re bothered by these pests.
What are some of the backyard birds that benefit the most from nest boxes?
Bailey: Chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, bluebirds, Tufted Titmouse and Tree Swallows will readily accept a nest box. Others, like the American Kestrel and Screech Owls, will adopt a nest box in backyards that have a bit more open space or wooded areas (respectively) for these raptors that require a bigger territory.
What are the benefits to birds when someone puts out a nest box?
Bailey: When you provide a good nest box, you’re providing a home for our native cavity-nesting birds, many of which are declining throughout their range. If you live in an area with a declining species, like Prothonotary Warbler, putting out a nest box can help boost local populations. Often, birds will try to nest in situations that resemble their natural nesting holes, like your newspaper box, but they may be unsuccessful because these are not ideal homes (they could overheat or be accessed by a predator). Providing them with a better option helps them out, while keeping them out of your mailbox, watering can, or other inconvenient location.
Are there any beginner mistakes that someone can avoid?
Bailey: Putting out a "decorative” birdhouse is probably the biggest newbie mistake. These cute houses look adorable to us, but they are probably not designed for actual use by birds. Another rookie mistake is checking the box too often. You only want to peek in your nest box every 3-4 days, avoiding certain times like early morning, late at night, and during inclement weather. Some landlords will check every day, which disturbs the birds too frequently. Finally, nest box landlords should refrain from spraying chemicals in their yards during nesting season. Remember, most songbirds feed insects to their young.
Should someone put out a feeder in conjunction with the next box? What are some other accessories that someone might want to consider?
Bailey: A feeder is not necessary, but it can be fun to watch fledglings come to the feeder with their parents. I definitely recommend a predator guard to keep predators at bay. You can’t always prevent predators from finding your nest boxes, but a predator guard can go a long way in helping you get the most out of your nest box experience.
Courtesy Ian Stewart, NestWatch.org
Tree Swallows are another species that may use a nest box.
Are there any pitfalls to putting out nest boxes?
Bailey: Sometimes, nest boxes can attract species that you don’t want nesting in your yard. Non-native species like House Sparrows and European Starlings are also attracted to nest boxes, and they may find them before your target species does (or worse, evict them). You can exclude them by putting out nest boxes meant for wrens and chickadees, which are smaller than the House Sparrow and Starling.
Does someone have to know a lot about birds to put up a successful nest box? What are some of your tips for beginners?
Bailey: It’s pretty easy to get started. Make or purchase your nest box before the breeding season, and have it up by February (in the South) or mid- to late March (in the North). Choose a model that has a hinged wall or roof that can be opened for cleaning and viewing, then closed with a clasp to keep raccoons out. The beauty of a nest box is that you can’t help but learn about birds as you watch them raise their young, so you will be more knowledgeable every year. It’s a great family activity.
How much time is involved with managing a next box?
Bailey: Boxes should be cleaned out at least once a year, which takes about fifteen minutes. To do more, you can monitor your nest box for science by registering at NestWatch.org, where scientists have been tracking breeding birds since 1965. It takes about ten minutes to register your box online and describe the location and habitat. Then, participants can monitor the nest box every three to four days and report online what they saw. Altogether, it could take about one and a half hours spread out over the whole nesting cycle.
Where can someone go to find out more details about putting up nest boxes?
Bailey: Check out our Nest Box Resource Center at NestWatch.org.