The signs that Spring is on the way in the northern hemisphere are already appearing – snowdrops have been pushing through the frozen ground since early January in some parts of the world. In the 1950s, these celebrated flowers would appear in late February, but as we all know, the climes they are a-changin, and warmer, milder winters are kicking things off earlier. Breeding season is coming.
Habitat loss and an increasing lack of natural resources are having an impact on a bird’s ability to not only locate a good place for a nest, but also to keep it. Competition at every stage of the game is absolutely full-on – fights for territory can be fatal, and even once a site is secured, there is no guarantee it will stay yours.
On top of that, there will be species who are brood parasites, the famous example being the cuckoo, who will sneak their eggs into a pre-made nest and in some cases eject that bird’s eggs to ensure their own survival.
Weather events, hunting, land clearance for development, illegal egg poaching and poisonings all amount to an incredibly stressful time for nesting birds, and that’s all before they start to raise the kids.
However – we can do our bit to help things along for those generations to come.
An incentive to help birds in this very trying time was dreamed up in 1997 by members of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). National Nest Box Week is a scheme dedicated to raising awareness about nesting birds and the challenges they face, and how we can make a positive difference to negative actions that have come before. Urbanization and the removal of many natural green spaces from cities and towns to make way for more housing and corporate buildings has led to a year-on-year decimation of suitable nesting sites for millions of birds.
Woodpeckers and other species like nuthatches and even chickadees are called primary excavators, because they carve out holes in the bark of dead or dying trees to make a nest, but like most species they only use it once; secondary nesters – all other birds – then use these ready-made holes for their future offspring.
Humanity’s bizarre obsession with neat and tidy means that many of these superb nesting sites are cleared away to create manicured lawns, gardens and parks, ridding the area of a much-needed locale. Dying and dead trees also provide an innumerable range of species the perfect habitat to thrive, species which are vital to the health of the planet; but that’s for another blog.
Nest Box Week always starts on February 14th, no matter what day this falls on, and naturally lasts for seven days until the 21st of February. The 14th of February is of course also known as Valentine’s Day, as English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in his 14th century poem The Parliament of Fowls that this was the day when birds wooed each other. There couldn’t be a more suitable date to start thinking about helping birds find somewhere to breed.
To buy or diy
If you purchase or make your own nest box, there are several things you must be aware of. Shop-bought boxes can look amazing but certain characteristics must always be present – or indeed, absent. Always avoid brightly coloured boxes, mainly because those colors obviously announce to the world and anyone looking that – hey! There is a nest over here! – but also because many paints contain harmful chemicals that can leach into the otherwise safe space inside, even into the nestling’s food and into their skin.
Check out the materials used to make the boxes – wood or cork is infinitely better than plastics and metals, both in terms of environmental impact and living conditions inside the box. A metal nest box will heat up fast; you’re effectively cooking eggs in an oven. But bear in mind even wooden boxes can be inferior, especially if they are made from poor grade timber that hasn’t been weatherproofed in any way.
Boxes with an outside perch or platform may look like a fantastic idea to help parents stand guard or take a breather in between flying back and forth for food, but sadly these additions also provide an extremely useful handhold for approaching critters. A smooth-fronted box is best, with nothing to hang onto. Birds are good at flying straight into holes, they don’t need somewhere to sit first. The hole must also be at a good height away from the base of the box, again, to prevent predators from just reaching in and taking out. True, the new birds inside will have to put a bit more effort into getting up that hole, but that’s part of life. Better to face a challenge than to not even survive to see it. The right-sized hole is vitally important, as if it is too big, predators such as squirrels, rats and other larger birds like jays and owls can get in and feast on those precious eggs.
There are lots of sources online to find out what type of nest box is suitable for the species in your area, so be sure to read up on this before purchasing or making something that at the very least may not be appropriate, and at the very worst, may hasten disaster.
Lastly, bear in mind where you place the box – it’s great to be able to see it from your house but the priority must be for the birds, in a safe and secure position, out of prevailing bad weather or full sun. You also need to be able to access it to clean it out, but not too low for inquisitive hands and paws, and not too high that the worst of the weather batters it with wind and rain. At least 1m off the ground is a good place to start. Make sure there is shade and surrounding vegetation such as branches for anxious parents to survey the area for predators before going in or encouraging fledglings out.
A man's nest friend
The original idea for Nest Box Week came into being as a way to primarily help birds raise more young as evidence mounted in the early 90s that common species had been on a worrying decline for a good few decades. But the benefits for us also very quickly became apparent.
Making a bird box gives you some ideal family time, it can be informative and interactive, and the end result will keep on giving for years if made right. Even choosing a site together for a store-bought box is an adventure. Watching the new season of Spring filled with young birds is many people’s idea of paradise at home, and if you know where your nest box is, you know exactly where to look when fledging day finally arrives. The joy of seeing freshly unfurled wings take flight is incomparable. There are so many studies around now that prove watching birds is good for our mental and physical health, allows us to take time out of our busy days, and consider the welfare of others at the same time.
Although the event began in Britain, it has rightly become very popular in many countries across Europe, and also in the United States. This February 14th, remember that the birds need our help, and there is no better way to do that than together.