National Nest Box Week, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology, takes place each year from February 14 to 21. It’s quite appropriate that this event begins on Valentine’s Day each year because if you love birds then putting up a nest box is a good way of showing it.
When to hang a nest box
Nest boxes can be put up at any time of year but if you leave it much later than early February there is much less chance of them being occupied in the same year.
Where to hang a nest box
Deciding where to put the box depends to some extent on the species but generally try to avoid facing the nest box towards the south west where the worst of the wind and rain comes from. Also avoid having the box in full sun during the middle of the day because the box and chicks might overheat.
For these reasons it is often recommended that nest boxes are put on the north side of trees but common sense should prevail. If your site is sheltered or shaded, such as in woodland, then the box will be sheltered from the wind and shaded from the sun anyway.
How high to hang a nest box
Most nest boxes for small birds such as blue tit, great tit and nuthatch can be put at about head-height. The entrance to the box should not be obscured by foliage, so keep climbers well trained around the box.
Protecting birds from predators
It is important to consider predation and competition when installing a nest box.
For example grey squirrels will sometimes gnaw at the hole to make it big enough to get inside where they kill chicks or steal eggs. Making the nest box from thick wood will help to deter them and another feature to consider is a metal protector to screw in place around the entrance hole. It is also good advice to avoid nest boxes with a perch below the hole: birds don’t need a perch and it might help predators.
It has been proven that birds such as tits are more likely to be taken by predators such as sparrowhawks if their nest box is close to an area where you feed the birds. This is because the greater activity of birds in one area will attract the bird of prey. So try to put as much space as possible between feeders and nest box, or another solution to this problem is to stop feeding the birds during the nesting season. I tend to stop feeding birds from May to September anyway.
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How many nest boxes?
One final consideration is the number of nest boxes. There is no hard and fast rule as to how close to each other the nest boxes can be placed. In my garden I have three nest boxes occupied by two pairs of blue tits and one pair of great tits, these boxes are in a triangle about 20 metres apart. Much closer than that and I suspect there is less chance of the birds tolerating each other.
When to clean a used nest box
Part of the annual cycle of nest box maintenance is to clean the contents of the box. Cleaning can be done whenever the pair of birds has finished nesting. This varies according to the species but some birds such as sparrows can continue until late summer so I clean nest boxes between October and January.
When you make or buy a nest box check you can easily get access to the interior and when you erect it make sure it is accessible.
Making your own nest box
If you're planning on making your own nest box, to mitigate against high levels of heat or cold it is well worth making the nest box out of thick timber. I always use sawn timber at least 15mm thick for my nest boxes. Many of the ornate nest boxes available from garden centres are made from inappropriate thin flimsy wood.
It is also a good idea to drill small holes in the bottom of nest boxes to let water drain out and allow a little ventilation.
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What birds might use a nest box?
A wide range of British bird species will take to nest boxes but before putting up a nest box for a less common species it makes sense to do your research to see what is in your area. There is no point in having a barn owl nest box in an urban garden, for example.
Given the right conditions the following birds will potentially adopt a small nest box (approximate base 150mm square and height to hole 150mm) with a hole in the front (size given for each species): blue, marsh and coal tits (25mm); great tit, pied flycatcher and tree sparrow (28mm); house sparrow and nuthatch (32mm).
Of these great and blue tits are the most likely occupants in gardens. Pied flycatchers are very special birds and well-worth protecting but they are only a possibility if you live near western oak woods, particularly in Wales, Devon and north western England.
House sparrows have declined dramatically in recent decades so nest boxes for them are invaluable. These should be put under the eaves of houses and in open-fronted outbuildings but they nest in colonies so there should be several boxes to maximise the chance of success.
Robin, pied wagtail and spotted flycatcher will sometimes take to small nest boxes (same size as above) with an open front (roughly the top half of the front should be open). Of these the most exciting is the spotted flycatcher. These birds like gardens and parkland with a scattering of trees and open spaces where they catch flies. They like to make nests in climbers on sheltered walls, sometimes as high as 4 metres above the ground.
Other birds that might be attracted to larger nest boxes include: starling, great spotted woodpecker, little owl, tawny owl, barn owl and swift. Most of these need more space than is available in the typical garden but if conditions are suitable it can be very exciting to attract some of these wonderful birds.
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