Building new homes – for the birds

by ANTONY CLAY

THE birds don’t have it easy – and much of those stresses are thanks to people.

In the countryside we dig out the hedgerows they shelter and nest in or cut down trees, even whole areas of woodland, replacing them with wide open fields or houses.

In the suburbs, our gardens are geared towards our tastes and whatever vegetation there might be may not be suitable habitat for our feathered friends.

We might knock down old buildings which offered birds shelter, or ‘improve’ our properties which then prevent birds finding nesting holes in our roofs or under the eaves.

If we destroy potential nesting sites, then the bird populations will suffer badly. Some species have seen their populations fall by 80 or 90 per cent in this country in recent decades.

But people can throw the birds a lifeline – and it is something that we can all do easily and cheaply.

Nestboxes offer birds safe places to lay eggs and rear young.

Artificial nesting sites for sand martins. Picture by John Ingham

To most people a nestbox is a small wooden box with a round hole that will accommodate a blue tit or a wren, but there are a wide range of options that will suit many species.

While a blue tit might like a box with a small round hole, a robin would not, so there are designs specially for them.

In fact, you can offer nestboxes for everything from a tiny wren to a rather bigger kestrel or stock dove.

And people should maybe rethink what we mean by nestboxes. There are plenty of artificial nest sites that people can offer which look more like platforms or shelves.

It all boils down to knowing what different birds need. The titmice or sparrows want to enter their nests through a round space whereas robins and flycatchers, which naturally nest in undergrowth and bushes, prefer a wider entrance.

But the truth is that if you provide an opportunity to nest, the birds should come, and what chooses the site might be unexpected. You might find a tiny wren’s nest in a big box placed for a pigeon.

You don’t have to make nestboxes yourself. They can be bought from DIY centres, supermarkets, the RSPB at Old Moor nature reserve in Manvers, or from various sellers online. Some are better designed than others and you have to know where to locate them to get the best results (for the birds).

You can even buy more specialist designs such as those aiming to copy the mud nests placed under the eaves of houses by house martins.

House sparrows on nest box. Picture by Mark Thomas (rspb-images.com)

Some artificial nest sites, such as nesting platforms for waterfowl, need a bit more technical know-how and are probably best left to the experts to place.

But you don’t have to spend a lot of money on some attractive and pristine-looking nestbox. Far from it. You can get a few scraps of wood and knock them together into a box yourself.

It might not look professionally made but from the birds’ point of view it might look far more attractive because it appears natural.

We’ll come back to the look of the boxes shortly but even more importantly you need to know where to place them. You can have the best nestbox in the world, but if the birds don’t feel safe it won’t be used or, if it should be, the nesting attempt will inevitably fail.

Keeping human disturbance to a minimum is vital, so place it high enough for the prying eyes and fingers of youngsters to be avoided or so out of the way that it won’t be disturbed easily.

They should also be placed so that predators find it hard to get to them. Putting the box right next to a branch, for instance, would allow a squirrel or magpie to have a relatively easy time at ransacking the nest.

Put the box in a quiet place with no easy access for predators. Some birds like starlings won’t nest near the ground whereas robins and flycatchers will.

Some birds like a clear flight line to the box whereas others like to pause a few metres from it to look for danger.

It should be obvious to say that once placed a box should be fixed well so that it doesn’t fall in wind or because it is unstable.

Anyway, back to the boxes themselves.

Most boxes for garden birds don’t need to be big so if you have a few planks of wood lying around you could make a few boxes.

For blue tits the the dimensions could be four inches by four inches around the floor of the box with a depth of five inches, though for larger birds like tree or house sparrows, nuthatches, treecreepers or starlings, more space will be needed.

Whilst a blue tit would need a once inch entrance hole, a starling would need double that with a box depth of 12 inches and width of six.

Robins, flycatchers and wagtails want a wide open entrance of about six inches with the box being about nine inches deep and six by four in terms of width and length.

Boxes for pigeons and kestrels need entrance holes of about four inches or more and box depths of 11 to 12 inches.

But here are a few ideas to save you effort. Old petrol cans have been used in the past, with any sharp bits cut off and the former contents thoroughly cleaned away, as next boxes, as long as a hole for drainage is cut on the lower part. If made of metal, it should be placed in a shaded spot so it doesn’t get hot.

Fruit boxes can be attached to walls and inside old buildings with a hole cut in as an entrance. These could prove attractive to little owls.

Lengths of piping wedged into a suitable space in a wall might make a des res for a bird.!q Simple flat pieces of wood firmly fitted into gaps in buildings or in sheds will provide a stable platform for species like blackbirds to build their nests on. Swallows can make use of such platforms fixed in barns or stables.

You can even use unusual objects. An old kettle placed discreetly with the spout facing downwards has often proved attractive to a robin. Anything that offers a space, an entrance and drainage can be tried, from an old teapot to an old hat hanging from a nail.

In one instance, an old wooden ornament designed like a gypsy caravan was nailed to a garage and provided a home to song thrushes and blackbirds for many years. Indeed, one blackbird pair managed to raise five broods in one year in it.

The best thing to do is experiment, but you will need to start placing boxes fairly soon ready for this year’s nesting season.

Place a few boxes around your garden, then ask family and friends if you can put them in theirs as well. If you live in the countryside, try and locate a few artificial nest sites in farm buildings or walls.

Nestboxes won’t just be used by birds for nesting. They are vital as roosting sites during the rest of the year. There are records of up to 40 wrens snuggling up in one nestbox!

And you might even find the boxes are taken on by other creatures such as insects or mice. It’s all good!

Practical conservation like this can be great fun, deeply satisfying and educational for young and old. Watching a bird family grow is a fascinating experience.
Nestboxes are a real way in which people can right the wrongs we have done towards our birdlife — and offers you the opportunity to do it in your own way.

SAFETY MESSAGE
Always be careful with sharp tools and when climbing ladders. Children in particular should be supervised with hammers, saws and nails. If near water, make sure youngsters don’t wander and fall in. Always follow a nestbox manufacturers’ instructions.

FACT FILE:
One of the best books on the subject is Bird Nest-Boxing by Norman E Hickin – you can buy second hand copies easily on the internet.
RSPB – website http://www.rspb.org.uk telephone 01767 680551 email membership@rspb.org.uk
BRISTISH TRUST FOR ORNITHOLOGY – website http://www.bto.org telephone 01842 750050 email info@bto.org
YORKSHIRE WILDLIFE TRUST – website http://www.ywt.org.uk telephone 01904 659570 email info@ywt.org.uk
SHEFFIELD AND ROTHERHAM WILDLIFE TRUST – website http://www.wildsheffield.com telephone 0114 263 4335

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