A book inspired me to build houses – for the birds

by ANTONY CLAY

The book that inspired

BEING a literary sort of chap, and a birdwatcher, you would think that I’ve read lots and lots of bird books. But that wouldn’t be true.

I’ve read some of the classics like David Lack’s The Life of the Robin and D W Snow’s A Study of the Blackbird but not much more. It’s my loss and I should amend the situation.

Obviously I’ve worked though quite a few field guides, that birding tool as important as any pair of binoculars.

But there is one book that has had more of an influence on me than any other ornithological tome because it actually prompted me into action after I’d put the book down. It got me out of the house and trying to do something to help the birds rather than just watching them.

It changed my views on the benefits of practical conservation and showed me that everybody can help nature.

I think I first came across the book in question whilst browsing at Bentley Library near Doncaster. I must have been about 11 or 12, I suppose, and it kind of stood out on the shelf.

It’s called Bird Nest-Boxing by Norman E Hickin.

One of the book’s nestbox ideas, this for a swallow family

Obviously I’d heard of nestboxes and what they were for but I don’t think at that point that I’d actually put one up.

But reading Mr Hickin’s book was a revelation. A nestbox didn’t need to be just the standard box with a round hole and, indeed, shouldn’t be if you also wanted to help species like robins and flycatchers which prefer boxes with open fronts.

The book also suggested you could help other birds as well by erecting simple wooden ledges for them to build their nests on in barns and sheds.

This book sowed an idea in my head which took up quite a lot of my time.

I should throw in here that at the time I was involved in the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme where you filled out a green card with the history and location of any next you came across.

For years I would spend my time out looking for nests (in a good and responsible way, I should add – I never caused a nest to be deserted or, perish the thought, collected eggs) and noting down what I found. But now, with my new-found nestbox knowledge, I could actually up my chances of finding nests and help the birds at the same time.

Mr Hickins’ wonderful book had the advantage of being written in a simple, straightforward way and having illustrations. It said what sort of nestbox different species of birds prefer and where they should be placed.

But, more importantly to a youngster without much ready cash to throw around, it suggested that boxes could be rough and ready, made out of scraps of wood and old fruit boxes and so on. Basically you could utilise anything that had a space big enough for a nest, knock it in place and see what happened.

This is why my parents found kettles nailed to sheds (spout facing downwards to aid nest drainage) and an old wooden mini gypsy caravan ornament thingy stuck to the back of the garage. This last one turned out to be the most successful of all my creations, used by a song thrush once and blackbirds every other year. Indeed, one blackbird pair successfully raised FIVE broods in one season in it – my crowning achievement and probably theirs.

But I had bigger plans. Locating nestboxes around a suburban garden or two was all very well but I wanted to upgrade my mission – which led to an offensive on my Auntie and Uncle’s farm in rural Worcestershire.

Antony reading the book

I spent months collecting wood and making rough and ready boxes of all shapes and sizes, as well as demanding my mother get the greengrocer to give her fruit boxes which could be nailed flat against a wall with an entrance hole cut in to entice a little owl or similar. It could also be a ledge for a bird of prey, perhaps.

Flat bits of plank were collected to lay in gaps in my relatives’ stables, cowshed and barn to form a platform for blackbirds’ and swallows’ nests. I had it all worked out.

Other more traditional boxes would be nailed to trees across their land, as well as onto telegraph poles which I guess was probably illegal in hindsight.
Others were placed in the phenomenally prickly hawthorn hedgerows. I genuinely suffered for my art!

I then sat back and waited. Because I wasn’t living there all year I had to get my relatives to watch over things (because they clearly had nothing else to do!). I seem to recall that most of the boxes were first put up a bit late in the season so it was a case of waiting till the next year, though apparently some of the boxes were popular for roosting.

Many of the artificial nest sites were used. Thrushes and tree sparrows and swallows used the boxes and ledges so I was over the moon.

Mr Hickins’ book showed that even putting up one bird box or artificial ledge can encourage our feathered friends to breed. Providing these sites is important because people are cutting down the trees and grubbing up the hedgerows that the birds formerly nested in, as well as knocking down the old rickety farm buildings that were a haven for owls and swallows.

The book suggested there were even nestboxes for species like house martins though I never tried them out. You can, these days, buy artificial house martin nests which you stick up under the eaves but Mr Hickins’ book suggested a design which was a little cheaper. But the farm already had a thriving house martin colony back then (alas it disappeared completely a decade later – the birds just didn’t come back one year).

An idea in the book for a home for nuthatches

As the years have gone by ofcourse, interest by people in nestboxes has grown enormously and many people place them in their gardens, which is something to be welcomed.

You will see artificial nesting platforms for wildfowl and raptors on nature reserves.

But the idea that people could do other practical things to help wildlife was first suggested to me by Mr Hickins’ book.

You don’t have to make nestboxes yourself. They can be bought from DIY centres, supermarkets, the RSPB at Old Moor, 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 get advice on such matters from the RSPB, British Trust for Ornithology or local wildlife trusts.

I’ve only ever seen Bird Nest-Boxing – published in 1971 – on sale in an actual shop once, at the Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove. You can, in these days of that internet thingy, buy a copy reasonably cheaply online.

The book’s suggestion at what to do with an empty petrol can

The dust jacket on my copy is rather worse for wear these days but I still delve into the hardback every now and again just for the pleasure of it. In fact, after writing this, I feel a fresh round of box building coming on…

  • I would like to hear about your unusual nestboxes or odd nesting sites chosen by birds. If you have pictures that would be great. But remember never to disturb a nest in use. Email me at antony.clay@rotherhamadvertiser.co.uk.

FACT FILE:
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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