Invest in the Nest!
The birds in our gardens would have had lots of spaces to nest in years ago. From a countryside landscape filled with mature woodland, hedgerows and scrubland, to old houses, barns and cottages dotted with nooks and crannies, there would have been a nesting opportunity perfect for every species. The way we farm and improvements in building materials and techniques has led to huge reduction in spaces suitable for nesting, and many bird populations have declined. The good news is that our
residential gardens make up a massive 433,000 hectares of land in the UK, and around 87% of British homes have a garden. That means that we have the space to make a huge difference to bird populations. If you’ve been watching the birds in your garden recently, you will have noticed a slight increase in activity. As we come into nesting season the birds are starting to establish their territories and try to attract a mate. National Nestbox Week was set up by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and takes place every year, starting on Valentines Day to mark the start of nesting and breeding season. The event was designed to raise awareness of the importance of welcoming birds into our urban gardens and has run for a little over twenty years.
HOW CAN WE HELP?
We can replicate a natural nesting site by adding a nestbox to the garden, and we can think long term too, creating a more inviting space for garden birds by planting hedging and trees in our gardens.
WHICH BIRDS WILL I BENEFIT?
We had coal tits nesting in our nestbox last year in our New England Nestbox. Blue tits also use a similar box, while tree sparrows, nuthatches, great tits, pied flycatchers and redstarts prefer a slightly bigger entrance. Robins, wrens, blackbirds, spotted flycatchers and pied wagtails will make use of an open fronted nest box, and swallows, housemartins, swifts, owls, woodpeckers, treecreepers and even birds of prey will use a specially designed, species-specific box. House sparrows nest in loose colonies and can be encouraged with a terraced nestbox so they can stick together. More than 60 species of bird are known to use nestboxes in the UK, so with the right nest box you might get to see new visitor in the garden. You stand to benefit as well as the birds - watching birds in the garden is a brilliant way to relieve stress, and watching them build a nest and raise their young is one of the most exciting things to see.
HOW TO CHOOSE A NESTBOX
It’s important that your nest box is made using either wood or woodcrete (a mix of concrete and sawdust) to ensure it stands up to predators and is warm overnight and it is always a good idea to treat the wood using a water-based preservative. Make sure a wooden nestbox has a stainless steel entrance plate to prevent squirrels and bigger birds from widening the hole and getting to the chicks, and choose one without a perch which also leaves the nestlings vulnerable to predators. It is important to ensure the nest box can be opened up for easy cleaning (you’ll be able to clean it between September and January, when nesting and breeding season has finished). There are plenty of free plans available online to allow you to build a nest box of your own.
WHEN TO ADD A NESTBOX
February is the perfect time to add that new nestbox to your garden, as birds are scouting out potential breeding sites. Some birds even started their search in Autumn (and there are species that will roost in nestboxes throughout winter), so it’s a good idea to get it established as soon as you can.
WHERE TO HANG A NESTBOX
You and your family will want to be able to see the birds and their young, but the top priority has to be their safety. We want to ensure they are protected from both predators and bad weather, and also that we can clean the nest box out at the end of the season. The nest box should be no less that 1m above the ground with the entrance hole facing north or east and angled slightly downwards to avoid prevailing wind and rain.
If you have trees or outbuildings, these can also be used to shelter the entrance. Make sure you allow space between nestboxes of the same type to avoid territorial behaviour, and position the box away from bird feeders so the nesting pair aren’t disturbed or distracted from caring for their young by chasing off other birds. Make sure cats can’t access the nest box, and obscure it from view by positioning it within planting - just make sure there’s a clear sightline to the entrance so the birds can get in and out quickly. Use stainless steel screws and galvanised wire to hang the nest box and check the fittings regularly to make sure the box is secure.
LOOK AFTER YOUR NESTBOX
Check your nestbox for wear and damage before breeding season starts. Wear gloves while disposing of any old nests and use a stiff-bristled brush to give it a quick clean. Don’t be tempted to add nesting materials to the nest box - the birds will prefer to add their own, but you can leave a supply of pet hair, strands of thread, piles of grass clippings and twigs and straw in the garden to encourage them to get started.
The BTO are always keen to hear about your nestbox visitors, and you can complete the surveys on their website (bto.org) to contribute to conservation data. I would love to hear and see pictures too - you can share them online @ alittlebirdcompanyuk and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.