Breeding season takes an enormous toll on the parent birds, from trying to find somewhere to breed in the first place, to keeping their energy levels up to raise their young. We’ve got a few tips for how you can help them along whilst they do the family thing.
Birds breed every year in the spring and summer, and with bird populations in serious decline in many parts of the world, it’s not such a bad thing to give them some support if we can. They certainly won’t shun our efforts if we do it correctly and safely. The best thing we can do for budding or new parents is to provide something we all need: shelter, food, and water.
Box it up
Aside from providing birds with the materials they need to build a nest, you can always just give them a ready-made home, in the form of a bird box. Artificial swallow and swift nests are readily available these days as well, or if you know martins or swallows come to your property to nest, make sure you fix a small platform beneath any known nesting sites before they arrive in the spring. This will help the parents return any babies who have been jostled out by their stronger siblings in the perpetual demand for food.
The best thing we can do for budding or new parents is to provide something we all need: shelter, food, and water.
Putting up birdhouses can be incredibly helpful. Birds that migrate in the spring do so much faster than their autumn journeys, as finding a breeding site is top of the list, with all birds competing for the best spots.
When choosing or making a bird box, you’ll need to ensure that the opening in the box is of the right size for the type of bird you want to attract, and information on bird sizes in field guides or online resources can help you with this. Having a box with a larger than necessary opening can lead to unwanted visits from brood parasites like cuckoos, or predators wanting to take the eggs or chicks.
If you do make your own box, ensure you can also remove part of it to clean it out, otherwise it will have a very short life, as birds won’t return to a dirty or mite-infested nest, and many species of birds will try for families two or three times a season. Using dowels on the roof section is ideal so you can just pop that part off to clean, and put it firmly back together again.
You can buy small metal plates with different-sized pre-drilled holes in them for many bird species, and these are incredibly useful, not only to help you gauge the hole you’ll need, but also when affixed properly to the outside, they prevent predators like woodpeckers from making that entrance hole larger and helping themselves to a tiny bird treat.
Also, you’ll often see ready-made bird boxes with a little rod beneath the hole for the bird to perch on – unfortunately this is not a good idea, no matter how photogenic it may be. This perch can help predators like squirrels or martens get a grip on the box and help with leverage either on to the structure for further onboard demolition, or help them prise the box off altogether. The same goes for nearby branches – birds don’t need perches to come and go from the box, so try to find a space on your tree that has no easy access for non-winged animals, or cut some branches back, and never place them near a ledge or fence that can be accessed easily by predators.
When putting the box up, find the best place for it first. To keep it out of harm’s way in terms of adverse weather, find out the predominant direction your rainfall and storms come from. If you can, fix the house at a slight angle downwards, so that rain won’t easily go into the hole and will run down off the top.
Baby birds are quite possibly one of the most vulnerable species there is.
Bird boxes must never be placed in direct sunlight either, as the eggs or chicks will easily overheat, killing them. If you live in a very sunny part of the world and you can’t be sure this won’t happen, choose a box that has ventilation holes along the top edge, or drill some in yourself. Never buy a birdhouse made of metal, as this will just become an oven on even the slightly warmest of days.
Food and drink
If you put food out for the birds, don’t forget they’ll need water to process all that protein and fat, too. As breeding season starts in early spring, it can still be very cold and water sources may be scarce, either frozen or non-existent. Make sure you provide a bowl of clean, fresh water every day, (actually, provide water all year) and check it hasn’t frozen. If you have a bird bath, then even better, as parents often show their new chicks some of the most important sites around, so make sure your bird bath is on the list by keeping it topped up with no more than 3 inches / 7.5 cm of clean water.
Always make sure you place feeders away from any shrubbery that could contain nests. Research has shown that placing food near nests, which may seem like a helpful move on our part, actually makes it far easier for predators such as squirrels and stoats to find, attack and kill the young birds.
A new life in peril
Baby birds are quite possibly one of the most vulnerable species there is. Often left alone whilst parents search for food, and having no feathers to remove themselves from dangerous situations, the first couple of weeks of a baby birds’ life are crucial to long term survival. If a nest type is open at the top, gravity can easily have its way as well, and it’s sadly not uncommon to find perished baby birds on the ground beneath trees or buildings.
If you do find a baby bird on the ground that looks like it needs help, there are some steps to follow. First, you’ll need to be sure it is a nestling, a bird that should still be in the nest, rather than a fledgling, a bird that either can’t yet fly or is learning, and has left the nest to explore its surroundings. Fledglings will have developed quite a few feathers, and it will be more alert with eyes wide open, and the mouth gape flanges, the parts where the beak meets the head, will be more proportional to the size of the head. Nestlings, on the other hand, are mostly featherless, eyes still or partially shut, and the head appears to be all mouth.
Once you’re sure it is a nestling, then the first thing you should do, if it is clearly safe to do so and you can see one, is put the bird back in the nest. Clean your hands first or use gloves, you don’t want to leave your human scent on it and scare away the parents. If you don’t see a nest or you are in a larger public area, then, as hard as it sounds, it’s best to leave that baby there. Its parents are rarely gone for more than 15 minutes during relays for food, or may even be close by waiting for you to leave, and they will usually scoop it up and put it back. To be sure, though, stay away at a distance and keep a lookout if you can for at least an hour. But, if you are absolutely unable to walk away, then place the bird in a box with some leaves or grass and ideally stay close to the spot you found it and keep a watch out for birds coming by. If after an hour or so there is nothing, then you can try hand-rearing that chick.
If the bird is visibly injured, though, then you’ll need to get it to a qualified rehabilitator if there’s any chance of that bird surviving. Placing it back in the nest will just be condemning it to die, as the parents will see it is weak, and they or the siblings will reject it.
The hardest part, for the parents at least, is finally over.
It can be hard to resist the temptation to look in on a nest, but you run the real risk of deterring the parents from returning, abandoning the baby chicks to starve, so please leave any nests you see alone, and only touch a nest if there is an absolute emergency such as a storm dislodging it, or under obvious attack from predators.
Rinse and repeat
One day, after a few weeks of worry and toil, perfect new birds will emerge from a nest or your birdbox, and the hardest part, for the parents at least, is finally over. Those birds won’t need that box anymore and will learn to sleep with their new brothers and sisters elsewhere. Once you’re sure a bird box has been vacated, you can now take it down and give it a good clean out ready for the next cycle. Empty out any nest debris and use a solution of one-part mild bleach to nine-parts water, give it a good scrub and leave to thoroughly air dry, then just put it back up.
Following these basic rules and tips will help our beaked buddies have a very successful breeding season, and young birds will fill the skies once more.