Cleaning and Siting Nest Boxes

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Now is the right time to take down your nest boxes and give them a good clean ready for Winter roosting and next Springs breeding season. It is a good time to reflect on successes or failures and look forward to the coming year (Its never too early to start thinking about Spring) and what it might bring.

There are few more heart warming moments in the garden than watching a Blue Tit survey your nest box – which they will sometimes do in Autumn –  for the first time or catching a glimpse of Sparrows carrying nesting material to make their home in a box strategically placed and provided by yourself. Inviting birds into your garden, whether that be to nest or simply feed is an extremely rewarding experience and I would encourage anyone with a garden – and it doesn’t have to be a big garden – to provide something, anything for the local birds. Some of them need your help more than you might think.

If you already have nest boxes in your garden then cleaning them is simple and only takes a few minutes. Unfortunately many people put nest boxes up in good faith but leave them neglected year on year and this is an easy route for the spread of disease. The most important rule of cleaning nest boxes is to ensure that you never use pesticides, detergents or any other chemical based cleaner. Following the instructions below for simple, safe and thorough cleaning:

  • Nest Box cleaning can take place from the beginning of September when the nesting season has finished.
  • Remove the nest box from its current site and access the box – this may be vire a hinged or screwed lid or base.
  • Remove the old nest (if you were lucky enough to have one) and any nesting material from the box. You may discover some unhatched eggs – this is perfectly normal, especially with Blue Tits and Great Tits who compensate for loses by producing up to 14 eggs in each brood. If the weather has been particularly bad and the nest deserted you may also come across some dead young.
  • By law, unhatched eggs may only be removed from the nest between September and January and must be disposed of.
  • Now that the box is empty, boil the kettle and pour the boiling water inside the nest box.
  • With a strong bristled scrubbing brush (a washing-up brush works well) Scrub the inside of the nest box clean. Rinse again with boiling water to ensure any bacteria or mites are killed.
  • Leave the box to dry naturally before re-hanging.

If you have not already hung nest boxes in your Garden and would like to, then the siting and style of the box is critical to success. There are a huge variety of nest boxes on the market now, standard boxes with (different sized) holes in the front for Tits, open fronted boxes for Robins, Wrens and Spotted Fly Catchers, Sparrow ‘terraces’, Starling specific nest boxes and even specially adapted boxes for Swifts. It is worth mentioning that many of the more decorative and ‘fashionable’ nest boxes found in home stores and the like are not always fit for purpose and act more as a garden ornament than a usable nest box!

When choosing your nest box you need to have in mind which species of bird you want to cater for as all have slightly different requirements. For hole-fronted nest boxes follow the guidelines for whole width as below:

  • Blue Tit – 25mm
  • Great Tit – 28mm (note that most standard hole-fronted boxes cater for both Great and Blue Tits by using a 28mm hole)
  • Tree Sparrow – 28mm
  • House Sparrow – 32mm
  • Starling – 45mm (Note that Starlings require a box of larger dimensions, these can be purchased specifically for Starling)

House Sparrows like to nest together in small colonies and so House Sparrow specific boxes are often sold in the ‘Terrace’ style – a long box that usually contains three separate cavities and holes for the individual families. A cheaper alternative to this would be to simply hand three standard hole-fronted nest boxes alongside each other. Open-fronted boxes for Robins and Wrens are usually of the same proportions.

So now you have your nest box, its time to hang it up. Citing of the box is critical to success and if you have had boxes in the past that you haven’t had any success with you may wish to re-site your boxes following the same guidelines as below. Siting can be host specific but there are also some common guidelines for all species:

  • Unless shade is provided throughout the day, boxes should be sited facing between North and East. This will protect from strong sunlight (overheating) and the wettest winds.
  • For Tits, Sparrows and Starlings nest boxes should not be immediately  obstructed by branches, twigs or thickets of shrubs and the birds should have a relatively clear flight path to the entrance.
  • Boxes for Tit species should be situated 2-4 metres above ground on walls or tree trunks and far enough away from any large branches, walls or rooftops to prevent predation from domestic cats.
  • House Sparrow and Starling nest boxes are best placed higher up, under the eaves to increase the chances of uptake.
  • Open-fronted boxes for Robins and Wrens should be placed lower down, below 2 metres and well hidden in vegetation (in thick Ivy is a great place as it is is evergreen and will provide good cover early in the season).

It’s worth mentioning that if you are siting nest boxes in trees then hammering nails into them will inevitably damage them. Instead use wire to attach the box around the trunk.

If you fancy yourself as a bit of a handyman or you are of the more creative persuasion then you can create your own nest-boxes from scratch and potentially save yourself a bit of money. Good basic instructions can be found here on the RSPB website.

If you follow all of these guidelines then you have every chance of creating a usable (and respectable!) home for nature. Nest boxes will often go unused in the first year especially if they are not put up until after Christmas. My only reasonable explanation for this is that birds are usually well aware of what is and isn’t in their territory and may be a little suspicious of anything new. Good luck for next Spring!

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