Round ones, square ones, big ones, small ones, wooden ones… even ones made from recycled election posters: nest boxes, just like the birds that use them, come in all shapes and sizes. They’re a great wildlife win-win — giving birds a safe, secure place to raise their young, and giving us the opportunity to watch all the drama unfold without disturbing them.
At this time of year the birds in our gardens are busily scouting out potential sites to build nests, lay eggs and raise this years chicks. But finding a site that’s just right can be a tricky proposition. Ideally it needs to be a site that’s close to a good source of food; offers shelter from the elements and sanctuary from potential predators; gets neither too hot, too draughty or too cold. The number of natural nest sites that tick all of the right boxes in any given area is finite, competition is fierce and the best ones get snapped up very quickly.
Nest boxes offer the ultimate “des res” for birds who are struggling to find somewhere suitable elsewhere — with the added bonus that, unlike natural nest sites, when birds choose to use your nest boxes, you’ll always know where they are.
By providing birds with a safe, secure nest site you’re giving their breeding season a kick start. They use less energy and waste less of their time searching. That means they can get down to the really important business of making more birds.
If you have nest boxes up in your garden keep a close eye on them over the coming weeks… you’re likely to see blue tits, great tits or other garden birds fly in for a recce. If you’re lucky you’ll notice the same birds popping back for another look. Eventually, if everything stacks up, the happy couple will move in, and you’ll see them arriving with nesting material. You’ve got new tenants!
If you don’t have nest boxes up yet there’s still time, just about, to get them up in time for this year’s breeding season. You can buy small nest boxes suitable for garden birds at most DIY and garden stores, buy nest boxes online from Birdwatch Ireland or you can Google “nest box plans” for oodles of options and advice on building your own. A word of warning though: if the aim of the game is to provide actual nesting space for real, live birds then steer clear of the ornamental styles in favour of plainer, more functional designs.
The type of nest box you choose will depend on the type of birds you want to attract. For garden birds the most common (and most widely used) nest boxes are the standard “tit” box, with a small hole as an entrance about two thirds of the way up the front panel. These are most often used by blue tits and great tits, but may also be occupied by wrens, coal tits and other small birds that routinely nest in holes in trees or walls. The other common nest box for garden birds is an open fronted design that will attract species like robins, pied or grey wagtails, wrens (again) or, if you’re very lucky, spotted flycatchers. There are also variations on the theme, like terraced versions of the standard hole-type nest box for communal nesting birds like house sparrows, special boxes for swallows, house martins and swifts and and larger boxes for birds like kestrels, barn owls and jackdaws.
Once you have your nest box it’s time to get inside the head of the bird and decide where you’re going to put it. Siting a nest box well is hugely important when it comes to attracting a tenant. Choose a site that’s sheltered from the prevailing wing, relatively inaccessible to predators, and that provides cover for the parent birds as they come and go if possible, but that doesn’t impede their access. Attach your box to a suitable tree or wall about two and a half to three metres off the ground… then watch and wait.
It may take some time for birds to take an interest in your new nest box, but persevere… if you have the right sort of box, and have sited it appropriately you’ll soon have birds visiting, and eventually setting up home. Then you can sit back and watch as the natural spectacle unfolds.
For more information on nest boxes, how to make them, how to site them and how to maintain them check out the nest box factsheet (c. 400KB PDF file) from Birdwatch Ireland.
This column was first published in the Irish Independent on Saturday 10 March 2012.