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Bird nest boxes

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It is time to clean nest boxes. Bird behavior announces they are claiming breeding territory. It is beautiful music to our ears when we hear the variety of songs in our neighborhood. In bird neighborhoods, songs announce property boundaries and call for mates. 

Within a given breeding territory, appropriate nesting space is essential. Many species require cavities in hollow trees. People have a habit of removing dead and hollow trees for a variety of reasons. To maintain adequate cavity nest opportunities, install nest boxes in a variety of habitats. 

Most well-known are Eastern Bluebird and Tree Swallow nest boxes. If not placed well they are taken over by House Wrens or House Sparrows that frequently kill bluebirds and swallows. 

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, I made sure the nest boxes were a considerable distance from shrubbery. When placed in open areas, the House Sparrows and House Wrens usually did not interfere with the open field nesting species. Tree Swallows compete with bluebirds for nest boxes. That problem can be reduced by placing two nest boxes within 15 feet of each other. A Tree Swallow that claims one box does not allow other Tree Swallows to use the nearby box. The swallow will allow bluebirds to use it. In effect the swallow protects the bluebirds from being driven out by swallows when two boxes are placed near one another.

Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s field has experienced plant succession with the invasion of native shrubs and trees. The shrubs have driven swallows out and bluebirds have not used some boxes meant for them. We have begun clearing shrubs and trees from the field to create more open habitat. Hopefully we will once again entice swallows and keep the bluebirds nesting here. In one area where bluebirds stopped nesting, I cleared an area around the nest box and the next year bluebirds began using the box again. 

Birds like Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches nest in cavities in wooded areas. I place houses in the woods for their consideration. Birdhouse boards are often about a half inch thick. We have placed predator guards on the boxes. It is an additional board that makes the entrance hole about one inch deep. Animals, like raccoons that reach in, cannot bend their leg to reach the eggs or young birds. 

The boxes are placed in locations away from heavy human traffic. When close to human activity, birds are often alarmed and leave the nest box when people approach. It interrupts egg incubation. 

Many designs offer selection options for nesting. The entrance hole size is important to prevent unwanted species from entering. Sometimes wrens, that are smaller than bluebirds, enter and kill bluebirds. Instead of a round or oval opening, a rectangular slit is used. It allows the bluebird to escape instead of being trapped by an invading wren. If an entrance hole is too large, European Starlings can enter and kill resident birds. 

Last year’s nest material should be removed from boxes so birds can start fresh with new materials that are fungus and parasite free. Cleaning nest boxes removes health hazards like mice turds or bird droppings. Wear rubber gloves and a facemask for your own protection when cleaning nests. Mice often occupy nest boxes during the winter and they can carry diseases to avoid like Hantavirus. 

One time near the edge of an invading forest, I found Southern Flying Squirrels using one of the nest boxes. Having lots of nest boxes provides opportunities for many species to nest. It is a joy to serve nature niche needs for a diversity of animals. 

Carrol Henderson wrote a book titled Woodworking for Wildlife. It is available from the Minnesota DNR. It provides the plans for making different wildlife nest boxes. If you haven’t cleaned nest boxes this spring, I recommend completing the task before the end of March. Install more boxes to provide nesting cavities.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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