Love in a box

Small tortoiseshell butterfly on daffodils, with white petals and yellow trumpets

Theres no place like home. We’ve all discovered the truth in that saying in the past year! One of the silver linings of us all spending much more time at home was the opportunity to feather our nests – perhaps a deep clean behind the fridge (eeww…), maybe we splashed out on some new soft furnishings, or stuffed window boxes with bulbs and bedding plants to make our view a little cheerier. Whilst we gaze out through the venetian blind of daffodils (which really were too tall for that position we will now grudgingly concede), it strikes us that the garden seems busier than normal, or maybe normally we’re the ones who are busier and don’t notice. Wildlife would probably consider the global pandemic a pretty good PR move if it thought about it. As our own lives slow down and reduce in distraction, other lives come into focus; the bees that visit the dandelions on the lawn, the red admiral butterfly we let out of the shed on a warm spring day, the blue tits and great tits and blackbirds and other small birds to-ing and fro-ing in the garden all day long.

Sharing our space and our homes with wildlife can be hugely beneficial, not only to the environment, but also to our mental wellbeing. Studies have proven that contact with nature reduces our stress hormone levels and may even help us heal and have healthier brains and bodies. Basically, birds, bees, blooms, and bugs, make us happy!

So, maybe you got the gardening bug last summer and filled your patch with nectar rich flowers, or you’ve kept those bird feeders and water dishes clean and filled up all winter. Are you now looking for something extra you can do in your garden or shared green space, to help out the wildlife that lives and visits there? How about putting up a nest box (or a few!)?

There are two main types of nest boxes to choose from open-fronted, and hole fronted. (you can also get specialist nest boxes for other birds such as owls or birds of prey, even ducks, but for this blog I’m going to focus on the common garden birds.)

A hole fronted nest box made from birch log, ready to be put up somewhere in my garden
An open fronted robin nest box, hidden away in a quiet corner of my allotment

Hole-fronted boxes are totally enclosed except for a round hole, creating a dark cavity. the hole can vary in size depending on the type/size of bird would are trying to attract. Tits and sparrows, and sometimes nuthatches will use this type of box.

Open-fronted boxes have a large square opening, creating a kind of boxed-in ledge. These are popular with robins, blackbirds, wagtails, and sometimes flycatchers if you’re very lucky.

The designs of the boxes aim to mimic the natural nest sites of the birds such as tree cavities or crevices. One of the many issues facing wild bird populations, and a partial cause for decline in many species, is a lack of natural opportunities through habitat destruction, so these artificial alternatives can make a really big difference to breeding success and population levels.

Building Materials
Nest boxes are available to buy in a huge range of materials, or you can even build them yourselves from offcuts of timber. The important factors are insulation and ventilation – you don’t want the box to turn into an oven! Drainage and the ability to access the inside for occasional cleaning are also considerations. If you build your own, don’t use timber that has been treated; many preservatives are toxic to wildlife.

As well as the construction of the box itself, you could consider offering nesting fibres and materials for the birds to take advantage of when setting up residence in their new home. Thin flexible twigs, straw, wool, sheep fleece and pet hair can be left out for bird to help themselves. A word of warning though; pet hair should only be put out before your dog or cat received its regular flea treatment as the medications can be toxic to birds. Many threads, wools and yarns contain plastic such as acrylic, so these are best kept indoors in your craft box for other activities. Only offer natural materials, and keep fibres short to avoid risk of entanglement.

Blackbirds and thrushes line their nest with mud – in hot dry springs it can be hard to find suitable material. Why not soften a patch of bare ground for the birds to get their beaks into. Regular mulching of garden beds, and not removing fallen leaves in winter, also helps to reduce evaporation and retains moisture in the soil.

You can find instructions for making your own nest boxes online, such as here from the BTO

Location, Location
Perhaps you were given a nest box as a gift at christmas, or you treated yourself to one in the winter sales? If you’ve not put it up yet, it’s not too late! By late Februrary many birds will already be starting to nest if it is a mild spring, but lots will still be searching for that perfect place! (You can put up nest boxes at any time of year. Those put up in summer/autumn, may be used by birds to roost in over winter. The record is over 60 wrens in one nest box!)

For most nest boxes, particularly for the tit family, a height of between 1-3m is ideal. Robins like to be low down, so place open fronted boxes at around 1-1.5m if you specifically want to attract these charismatic birds, but make sure local cats cant get near. Sparrows like to nest communally, up high. Historically the cavities in the eaves and guttering of our houses has been a favourite spot, but as we renovate and build new homes these opportunities are disappearing. Place sparrow boxes in groups, 3 is a good number, high on the wall, sheltered from the weather.

Adverse weather is one of the major factors in nest failure. Position nest boxes where they are sheltered from extremes of heat and wind/rain. Rain or wind getting into the box will chill the chicks, whilst baking sun will quickly get too hot. A shaded spot, or somewhere that faces north or east is ideal. The morning sun rising in the east will dispel any lingering chill from the night, but will soon move round so the box is shaded from the midday scorch.

Young birds in the nest are vulnerable, so try to reduce the access for predators where possible. Ensure there is plenty of cover near by, so the box is not exposed and easily visible, but keep a clear flight path to the entrance. This will also allow the adult birds to land nearby and ‘sneak’ into the nest unseen by watching hunters. Keep boxes out of reach of cats.
Hole-fronted boxes can sometimes be ‘broken into’ by squirrels and woodpeckers. A metal plate fitted around the entrance hole can offer some protection against this.
If the nest does get predated, many birds will lay a second brood in another nest, so may still successfully rear young that year. And of course, birds of prey, woodpeckers, and squirrels, weasels or stoats, all have young of their own to feed.

Birds are very territorial over their nest sites. If the box is near to feeders, then the nesting birds will waste a lot of energy chasing away birds coming to feed, thinking they are invading their nest site. Give nest boxes plenty of space, and peace and quiet. If you have a medium/large garden, put up nest boxes in different positions to give the birds plenty of choice and increase your chances of one or more being occupied.

Working with Nature
There are some species which don’t readily take to nest boxes; finches, long tailed tits, and dunnocks, for example. These species love a dense hedge or scrub to hide away in, where predators find it hard to reach them amongst the tangle of branches, and there’s plenty of shelter from the weather. If you need to replace a fence panel after stormy weather, or are considering a garden re-design, then planting a hedge or just a couple of evergreen shrubs, will create a much wider range of opportunities for all kinds of wildlife. Choose plants that offer something extra, such as berries in the autumn, to really maximise your gardens credentials.

A Date for your Diary: National Nest Box Week 14th-21st February

With fewer hedgerows and dead trees to offer in the wider countryside, plus increasing development in towns and urban fringes, gardens can be an important refuge for birds seeking suitable nesting habitats.

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