Spring is here and the birds and the bees are homemaking for the baby season. Helen Babbs explains how to give the wildlife in your life a helping hand with some nest box ideas. Then, bird box built, sit back, relax and witness your very own ‘Springwatch’ unfold in the garden.
Gardens cover a vast swathe of the UK, making them vital habitats for wildlife. In London alone, surely the most urban and built up of places in the country, there are over three million gardens, covering an area of more than 90,000 acres. These green spaces have enormous potential to provide homes for our native species, some of which are increasingly under threat.
Nest boxes form safe homes for breeding birds and it is a joy to see a family grow up in your garden. A dwindling number of old, hollow trees means bird boxes are more important than ever. An estimated two million fledglings are raised in UK nest boxes each year, and one box alone could be home to more than 100 babies over a ten year stretch. Making your own is a particularly satisfying project, not least because it is very easy to do!
You can make your nest box as simple or palatial as you like. A friend recently spent some quality time with his carpenter father building a beautiful bird box. After deciding that they wanted to make something suitable for small birds like blue tits, they got creative with some off cuts from the workshop. They used a rather fancy overlapping joining technique called ‘shiplap’, normally used in the construction of outbuildings, which isn’t necessary but does provide a good seal against bad weather. Making their mini mansion proved to be a real bonding experience, and the latest news from their garden is that a blue tit has been sizing it up and looks like she’ll move in this spring.
Build it yourself
The first thing to think about once you’ve decided to build a nest box, is what species of bird you want to use it, as this will determine how big the entrance hole needs to be. For small birds, a 2.5cm diameter is best, bigger birds like great tits and sparrows need a 3.2cm hole, while robins and wrens favour open fronted boxes. The nest box should be made from untreated wood that’s at least 1.5cm thick, it’s best to nail it together rather than use glue, and remember to include a couple of drainage holes in your design to ensure any rain that gets in can drain out again.
Location, location, location
Location is everything – you don’t want to make your nest box an easy target for predators. It should be securely placed at least two metres off the ground and away from overhanging branches, but do remember small chicks leaving the nest will need somewhere to perch. Choose a spot where the box won’t be over exposed to strong sun or wind. Leave 30 metres or so between other bird boxes and feeders. And then leave well alone – admire your creation, and the birds that move in, from afar.
If you buy one bird box…
Although making a bird box doesn’t take long, there’s nothing wrong with buying one readymade. I’ve just discovered what has to be one of the best bird boxes ever! The Pathways Workshop in Oxfordshire provides valuable work and training for disadvantaged adults who struggle to find other jobs. The team make a stunning bird box from recycled FSC wood that comes complete with a sedum living roof, which is not only good for birds but also great for insects. Plus it looks absolutely lovely.
Monitoring and maintenance
Keep a close watch on your box and record who moves in and when. It’s fun to keep a memory book of wildlife happenings in your patch, plus wildlife organisations often are interested to hear what species you have spotted. Nest boxes do need some general maintenance to prevent the spread of disease, but this should only be done when they are not in use. Clean yours out on a quiet day in autumn with boiling water. If you find any unhatched eggs these can only legally be removed between October and January. Birds sometimes use nest boxes as places to shelter from bad winter weather, so it’s worth leaving them up all year round.
Other homes for wildlife
It’s not just birds that appreciate human-made homes. Why not provide nesting areas for vegetable friendly insects like ladybirds and bees, and shelter for threatened, slug devouring mammals like the hedgehog? Also, a garden buzzing with insect life means any baby birds that hatch in your nest boxes will have a decent food supply close by.
A leaf or log pile is a simple way to make your garden more wildlife friendly, and will be popular with all kinds of creatures if left undisturbed. Or why not hang some bundles of bamboo from your trees to provide shelter for bugs, construct a bee hotel by drilling holes into an old fence post, or create a habitat wall from old wooden pallets filled with found objects and natural bits and bobs.
Patience is a virtue
Good luck homemaking for the broody birds and bees in your garden. Be patient though, most species need a bit of time to suss out any new properties in the area, so your nest box may not be used in its first year.
The British Trust for Ornithology has loads of great bird box advice at www.bto.org
Visit the RSPB website for comprehensive bird info www.rspb.org.uk
The BBC has plenty of practical nest box advice online www.bbc.co.uk
Download a free wildlife friendly gardening guide at www.wildlondon.org.uk/gardening
Find the Pathways Workshop bird box online at www.henandhammock.co.uk
This article appears in the April issue of Organic Garden and Home magazine