National Nest Box Week - 14th to 21st February
Gardens, parks, woodland and farmland are neater and tidier than they used to be, the continuing removal of trees and hedges are depriving birds of the natural habitat in which to find and build a home. To make matters worse there are fewer handy nooks and crannies, as buildings are being modernised, insulated and upgraded and not with wildlife in mind.
As seen in recent surveys, the populations of many bird species, especially in farmland, are rapidly declining as a result of, among other things, this housing shortage but the good news is that you can help and your own garden is a great place to start.
Providing nest-boxes replicate woodland nest sites for species which normally will use holes and crevices in trees; many of the tit species are typical woodland birds equally at home in rural and urban gardens and will readily take up residence in boxes if they are provided. Other species like sparrows, starlings and robins can also be attracted, given the right box and the right location. Just imagine how our wild birds would benefit if each one of our gardens contained a nest-box or two, plus plants and insects to provide food for their chicks. A chance of attracting rarer species to your area is a good reason to put up a nest-box but even the common garden species like tits, sparrows and wrens or even the ubiquitous robin will all benefit from more housing choices.
National Nest Box Week was launched in 1997 by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO - Britain’s leading bird research charity). Starting on St Valentine's Day and running for a week every year, it reminds us to provide for the wildlife that gives us so much pleasure during the year. The aim is to encourage everyone to put up a nest box (or more than one if you can) in order to promote and enhance biodiversity and to help to conserve breeding birds and other wildlife. Since the Nest Box Week began, thousands of enthusiasts have put up boxes to compensate for the loss of natural habitat and encourage wild birds into their gardens. It is estimated that there are now 5-6 million boxes in gardens across the UK (Birdwatch Ireland advised that there were no figures at present for numbers of nest-boxes in Irish gardens).
When to put up a Nest Box
Traditionally, boxes for tits and other small birds are put up in early spring before the new breeding season starts, that’s why Nest-box Week starts on February 14th – St Valentine’s Day – when birds are reputed to start their courtship. In reality, many species will be hunting for potential nest sites long before then, some juvenile as early as their first autumn and winter. By putting up boxes in the autumn you can provide much needed winter refuges for roosting birds in extremely cold weather and increase the chance of them staying and nesting there when spring comes around. However, any box erected before the end of February stands a good chance of being occupied;. Even after that, there's still a good chance of occupancy; Blue Tits have been known to move in as late as April. So, there's no right time, put them up when they are ready, don't leave them in the shed waiting for a perfect day - just put them up.
Location, location, location - Where to put up your nest boxes
When nesting in natural surroundings, birds select a wide range of habitats and sites. Some birds prefer to build in the forks of trees, some tucked into small holes in the trunks, others like to nest in the protection of a thick, spiky hedgerow or in deserted mouse holes at the base. Some like to build in the dense greenery attached to buildings, in holes in the fascia boards or even ledges in those buildings left to dereliction and decay. When providing nest-boxes these natural nest building sites need to be considered for attracting the species you have or wish to have in the garden.
Unless there are trees or buildings which shade the nest box during the day, face the box between north-east and south-east, thus avoiding strong sunlight and the coldest winds and the normal direction of the rain (south-west to west), if you tilt the box forward slightly any rain will hit the roof and fall clear of the entrance. Ensure too that the birds have a clear flight path to the nest without any clutter directly in front of the entrance.
If you are lucky enough to have woodpeckers in your area a nest-box, 3-5m high on a tree trunk with a clear flight path and away from disturbance, may gain you a colourful new resident.
Boxes for Blue Tits, Great Tits, sparrows or starlings should be fixed two to four metres up a tree or a wall, Coal Tits can be slightly lower but high enough to be away from predators. Open-fronted boxes for robins and wrens need to be low down, below 2m but well hidden in thick, evergreen vegetation.
It is rare, in gardens, to find boxes close together that would be occupied by the same species due to territorial disputes but some birds like to nest in colonies such as sparrows and starlings They will readily use nest-boxes placed high up under the eaves, two or three on the same side of the house, spaced slightly apart and not in areas where House Martins may normally nest.
It is best to avoid nest boxes that have a combined feeder and nest-box and they should not be sited too close to existing bird feeders in the garden as visitors to the feeder may disturb the nesting birds and could attract unwanted attention from predators.
Putting up a selection of different boxes, siting them around the garden in suitable locations on trees and walls, may attract several species of birds and that can only be a good thing. If you’re planning any building work, remember that some bird and bat boxes can be built directly into the walls and roofs.
The amount of boxes you put up will depend on the species you want to attract and the surrounding habitat. Start with five boxes per acre and keep adding boxes each season until some remain unused and hopefully you’ll hit on the correct density for your garden. Even if you have space for only one it is still worthwhile providing it, as many species need all the additional nesting habitat they can get.
Only certain birds will use nest-boxes so if you don’t have birds that make nests in cavities visiting your garden then your nest-box may remain empty. You could start by attracting the species of birds that will use nest boxes by putting out bird food and feeders that would to encourage them to explore your garden for suitable nest sites at a later stage.
In the UK, the RSPB have noticed an increase in the number of birds sharing their nest boxes with different species, Barn owls in particular seem to attract the most varied tenants, with reports of owls sharing with species including jackdaws and stock doves, in one case with kestrels; an arrangement that seems to work well as the owls hunt at night, leaving the kestrels to sleep and find food in the day. Other cohabiting species include blue tits and great tits, which have also been seen sharing with pied flycatchers. A spokesperson for the RSPB said 'If birds are sharing, they would appreciate another box as both species may wish to return to the same area the following year.'
Once you have chosen a suitable site for your nest-box, remember to keep the following: in mind. Fixing your nest-box with screws or nails may damage the tree; it is much better to attach it with wire - around the trunk or branch - inside a piece of garden hose to prevent damage to the tree. Remember that trees will continue to grow so check the fixing every two or three years.
Our taste for some things can have a strange impact on wildlife, especially when it comes to the quirky nest boxes beginning to appear for sale and I presume that some people buy them. My advice. DON'T!!!. This new trend of highly ornamental boxes (a case of style over substance) has lead the RSPB to issue a warning, stating that such nest boxes can actually be dangerous for young birds.
Nest building is, for birds, a case of providing a home for their family that is safe and secure; brightly coloured and highly decorative nest boxes attract attention and not just from humans. The concern of the RSPB is that predators including cats, squirrels, woodpeckers, magpies and birds of prey will recognise these nest-boxes too and this will put the small birds at greater risk of predation.
Boxes made from materials other than wood can also create problems, ceramic materials are being cautioned against as they have no insulation and can be too cold for nesting birds, metal boxes pose the opposite problem. Imagine it’s a hot day, scorching even, and you're stuck in a metal box, getting hotter and hotter with no way of escape. You would overheat, and so will those small, fragile chicks confined to their nest boxes.
It is much better to stick to natural materials, the most obvious one of which is wood and many companies supply wooden nest-boxes, sometimes with slate or tile roofs. There is also one manufacturer which makes bird house from 'Woodcrete'; an everlasting material that is a blend of wood fibres plus clay and cement that makes it is a breathable material – this prevents condensation build-up and helps to keep the box interior dry and airy all year round. One of my favourites are those hewn from the large branches of trees; birch, beech and chestnut, I love the look of them and the natural way they complement the surroundings
All around Ireland, in practically every town, the Men's Shed Association have members furiously beavering away making things and bird boxes are high on the list of things they make. Contact your local branch and see if they can help, especially if you are intending to put up a few of them or are considering bird nest-boxes as a community project.
You could of course make them yourself and there are sites on the Internet that will give you plans for every type of bird you may encounter in your garden.
Once you have installed your nest-boxes you should check and clean them on an annual basis, it is imperative to do this each year as often nest boxes become home to various parasites which may infest young birds in the following breeding season. You should remove any old nesting material, including dead eggs, from the box and give it a good clean out; this should be done between the end of September and the end of January. This ensures no disturbance to any birds or young resident in the box(es), however, be aware that some species of hole-nesting birds may have second or third broods, lasting into the autumn months, so while September 1s is a general guide, always check there are no resident adults or young in the nest-boxes before you start.
Older nest boxes that have not been used for some time may harbour fungi on damp nesting material, which can cause or aggravate respiratory conditions and can also be home to fleas and parasites so, please, always wear gloves and a dust mask, place any old material, including eggs, straight into a sealable plastic bag and dispose of it immediately. Use a quality enzyme solution specific for cleaning nests and feeders and boiling water to kill any remaining parasites, leaving the box to dry fully before rehanging
Although you may want to see your new nest box in use immediately, this is actually quite rare. Prospective parents like to 'check them out' first to become accustomed to them, to their location and to ensure that they are secure and suitable for their family. Don't give up though.
Watching a nest-box and its occupants can enhance any garden and provide endless hours of pleasure as parent birds return with myriads of caterpillars and insects to rear their brood and the sight of newly fledged chicks is well worth the wait!
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