Which Nest box? A guide to getting birds nesting in your patch

Wildlife Kate

For many of us, feeding the birds has become an integral part of our daily lives. We find it an excellent way of not only connecting with the wildlife in our gardens, but also as a way to relax. Last year, the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, attracted over 420,000 records of avian visitors over a single weekend in January. This information, which has been collected over the last 39 years, is vital, as it shows us the species that need our help, and the ones that are thriving.

Wildlife KateFeeding the birds is just one thing we can do to support and learn more about the wildlife in our patch and putting up nest boxes for them is another.
It can be quite daunting trying to decide which nest box to choose and then to decide where to put it, especially if you haven’t done it before. This guide concentrates on the species that are most likely to be in UK gardens and will guide you through some of the things to consider. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, but if you spend a little time in the planning stage, you are more likely to be rewarded by a visitor. Nothing quite beats watching birds taking to your nest box and successfully raising a family there!

Who uses a nest box?

The first thing to know is that not all birds will use nest boxes. Many garden birds, such as chaffinch, goldfinch and long-tailed tits like to build their nest within trees and bushes. It is the cavity nest builders that are most likely to use a box as it mimics their natural nest space; a hole or crevice in a tree.

With a dramatic drop in natural nesting places, a nest box can make a real difference and can encourage birds to nest in your garden that would not normally be able to find a suitable space.

Standard Nest Boxes

Most of us are familiar with a ‘standard’ nest box. These come in all shapes, sizes and materials, but are basically a boxed space with a small round entrance. The entrance hole can vary in size and a 28-32mm hole will attract our most common nest box users; the blue tit, great tit and house sparrow. I have seen house sparrows squeeze through 28mm hole, but the 32mm is preferable for them. The smaller hole can discourage sparrows, giving the tits a chance to nest.

Whereas the blue and great tits are solitary nesters (they don’t like their neighbours too close!) the sparrows are communal nesters and like to nest close together. Sparrow terraces can encourage this and allow them to have the social community that makes them feel safe.

Open Nest boxes

There are some species of birds that will use a nest box rather than building their nest in a tree or bush. An open nest box can provide a surface or space in which to build. Blackbirds are an example of this. Blackbirds and robins often like to find a platform or a study base on which to build. This could be a shelf or corner of your shed, part of the trellis in your hedge or even in an up-turned helmet or piece of garden furniture! An open nest box does not have the small hole but rather a wide opening. If positioned in a suitable location, within cover, then these are often occupied by such species.

Larger nest boxes

Depending on what species you have in your garden, you may want to offer a possible nesting space for larger birds. Of course the birds don’t know what species the box is targeted at and these larger spaces can attract a range of birds that like to nest on a more spacious box. An larger box can attract jackdaws, stock doves , kestrels and even owls, depending on location. One of my large boxes, aimed at tawny owls has had stock doves, jackdaws and tawnies nest in there and a range of other species have checked it out, including a kestrel and a barn owl!

Specialist Nesters

Wildlife KateYou can also help some species along by providing them with a ready built nest. Swallows and house martins build their nests from mud and saliva. A ready-made nest can attract them to an area or provide them with a space to nest. I have used the swallow cups very successfully and the swallows return to them each year, often adding a few bits of their own before settling down to nest much more quickly than if they were building from scratch. With naturally built nests, a harsh winter can cause them to crack and disintegrate, meaning the birds have to start from scratch on arrival back in the UK in the Spring.

Where do I put my nest box?

This has to be the most common question I get asked, especially as I have quite a lot of success with my boxes. I am speaking from personal experience when I say that I have no winning formula, but I do not stick to set heights or set directions. I try to think like a bird! In the wild, nest spaces would be at a wide variety of heights, locations and facing different directions. A bird is looking for a safe, sheltered space to raise their young. As long as your box is not in full sunlight or has a prevailing wind blowing straight in the box, then try different locations. I have had blue tits nest in boxes just a few metres off the ground and over 5 metres up! I have my boxes facing all different directions and have had success in all of them. I have had most success when they are mounted on trees, with a clear flight in, but opportunities to perch nearby. A bird likes to land and check it is safe, before entering the box.

If I get little or no interest in the box in certain location after 3 years, then I move it. Also, don’t put nest boxes too close together (unless they are for sparrows) as the birds will have territories and generally don’t like being too close. My closest tit boxes are about 10 metres apart but face in opposite directions. Also, don’t be tempted to put bird boxes close to your feeders. Again, this can discourage birds from nesting… would you want to live next to a busy, noisy restaurant?

When is the best time to put up a nest box?

You can put a box up at any time of the year, but I like to have a box up at least a month before the nesting season so it settles in and birds can get used to it. Having said that, I have been given boxes late in the season, put them up and had birds in the same day! Although the actual nesting season is relatively short, birds may use your box to roost in, during the winter months, so having them up over the winter is an excellent idea.

Do I need to clean my nest boxes out?

I like to clean out all my nest boxes around October. The old nest can harbour parasites and there can be old eggs and possibly chicks that perished. If left, the birds will often build on top, but it is a safer environment for a new family if they are cleaned out. I simply remove the nest and then brush out the insides with a stiff brush.

Cameras and nest boxes

Modern technology is moving on a pace and every year there are new camera and systems available for you to get even more out of your nest box! All of my nest boxes have cameras inside and many have them outside too! From commercially bought kits to bespoke options you can make yourself, the possibilities are almost endless…. Don’t get me started! This topic will deserve its own article!