Love Is in the Air…

PUBLISHED: 15:58 21 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Build a home for a bird, like this blue tit, during National Nest Box Week. By Sue Tanner/

Build a home for a bird, like this blue tit, during National Nest Box Week. By Sue Tanner/

As spring approaches, the RSPB suggests ways to give birds a place in which to pair up and raise young in your own garden. After all, the fact that more than 60 species of bird are known to have used nest boxes seems more than a good enough reason...

On a more serious note, nest boxes are vital for conservation because in many places there are simply not enough natural nest sites for birds in which to breed. Birds such as blue tits, great tits and the aforementioned flycatchers, are among those that have enjoyed a helping hand from nest boxes, not just in gardens but at nature reserves, too. And it's not just small birds that might need such help, barn owls also benefit. At the RSPB's nature reserve at West Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels there are five boxes and more on neighbouring land and the birds have also bred successfully in nestboxes at the wildlife charity's Ham Wall site near Glastonbury.

But let's get back into the garden. This year sees the 11th British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) National Nest Box Week, which begins on 14 February; this date is chosen because it is traditionally considered to be the time that birds start pairing up to breed. However, some species are a bit more amorous than others and will already have been checking out nest sites throughout the autumn and winter, but if you put up a box now you may be in time for blue tits and other birds that don't start looking for nest sites until spring is on its way.

Last year, more than 70 people from Somerset took part in a special BTO/BBC survey to look at the use of next boxes in gardens. The vast majority of breeding attempts were by blue tits and Somerset birds were just about the earliest breeders in the country, laying eggs a month before birds in Edinburgh, for instance. "So, Somerset bird-lovers need to get their nest boxes up as soon as possible. Spring starts a lot earlier in the South-west of England than anywhere else in the UK and blue tits and great tits will already be searching for their des res for 2008," says Graham Appleton from BTO.

Siting Your Bird Box

The actual location of your nest box is crucial to its usefulness, and advice on location varies from species to species. Boxes for tits, sparrows or starlings should be fixed two to four metres up a tree or a wall, and unless there are trees or buildings which shade the box during the day, face it between north and east in order to avoid strong sunlight and the strongest winds. Ensure, too, that the birds have a clear flight path to the nest with no clutter directly in front of the entrance. Tilt the box forward slightly so that any driving rain will hit the roof and bounce clear.

House sparrows and starlings will readily use nest boxes placed high up under the house eaves. And since these birds nest in loose colonies, two or three boxes can be sited, spaced out, on the same side of the house. However, remember to keep these away from areas where house martins normally nest.

Open-fronted boxes for robins and wrens need to be low down, below two metres, and well hidden in vegetation. Those for spotted flycatchers need to be between two and four metres high, sheltered by vegetation, but with a clear outlook. Woodpecker boxes need to be three to five metres high, on a tree trunk, with a clear flight path and away from disturbance.

Making a Home

Now think about which birds in your area might benefit from a nest box and then decide whether you're going to buy one or, if you're feeling a bit more adventurous, make one. To help make up your mind, you may find useful the RSPB's leaflet about nest boxes, available free of charge just by giving your regional office a call (number at foot of page). The leaflet also includes instructions on how to make a nest box.

If you decide to practise your carpentry skills, remember that nest holes don't come in standard sizes so any instructions on dimensions are just there to guide you. Any plank or sheet of weatherproof timber of about 15mm thick will be suitable, but don't use chemically treated wood as chemical residue may leak out if the box gets wet and this may harm birds.

Another important piece of advice is to make sure that the bottom of the nest-box entrance hole is at least 125mm from the floor, less than this and young birds might fall out or be scooped out by a cat. The inside wall below the entrance hole should be rough to help the young birds clamber up when it is time for them to leave. The box will need drainage holes at the bottom and a lid rather than a nailed-on top to make cleaning the box in the autumn easier. If you get the nest box right, you may be lucky enough to have birds moving in this spring, but sometimes it can take longer for the birds to show their appreciation of your hard work.

As well as putting up nest boxes, you will also need to look after existing boxes to ensure they're a suitable breeding site for years to come. The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. Once autumn comes around, and you are sure that all nesting activity is over for the year, remove old nesting material from the box and then use boiling water to kill any remaining parasites. Let the box dry out thoroughly before replacing the lid. Do not use insecticides or flea powders.

If there are any unhatched eggs in the box, these may be removed legally only between August and January, and must be disposed of.

As well as doing your bit for breeding birds, if you place a small handful of clean hay or wood shavings (but not straw) in the box once it is completely dry after cleaning, then it may be used over the winter by small mammals as a hibernation site, or by roosting birds.

So, if you decide to do your bit for National Nest Box Week, then your good deed may well last all year round. BY SOPHIE ATHERTON

For more information about the RSPB, to become a member, or to find out about volunteering opportunities call 01392 432691. For further details about the British Trust for Ornithology or to find out about the Nest Box Challenge visit or call 01842 750050.

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