Looking for a home

Words by:
Colin Smale
Featured in:
March 2022

As we look forward to those warmer, longer days of spring some of us may be considering buying or even making bird boxes for our garden friends. But while we are making plans some of our birds are already hard at work building their own nests. Colin Smale shares his tips on giving the wildlife in our local area all the help they can get.

Let’s give our garden companions somewhere to call home this spring – and let’s hope they choose to raise a family in your own garden.

When we think of nest boxes we immediately think of blue tits but there are a surprising number of birds that will take to an artificial nest box.

The house and tree sparrow, and great tit, are perhaps the three most common birds to accept a garden nest box – but how about the barn owl, sand martin, kestrel, robin, pied wagtail, and even swifts? Each has different requirements of course. Some like an open-fronted nest box such as the robin, blackbird or wagtail and as we scale up in size we can even provide a home for the barn owl and kestrel.

Many of our birds can no longer find those gnarled old hollow trees to nest in and so they are very grateful when someone fixes something in the rafters of an old barn or even in a wood.

Our birds may ‘seem’ to be okay in the countryside but they really are under pressure through a lack of nesting sites. While out in the countryside, I sometimes think we have a greater variety of birds in our urban gardens than there is in the wider landscape – we certainly have more foxes!

There are a dizzying variety of nest boxes for sale on the internet – or, if you want to make your own, download one of the many woodworking plans. You can even push an old teapot into a hawthorn hedge; robins seem to love these.

Make sure you get the holes right for whatever species you are aiming at: blue tit 25mm, great tit 28mm, house sparrow 32mm.

Birds are not going to choose a home that faces the sun; hot sun beating down on a nest full of chicks spells disaster and they know it, so choose a spot as near north facing as possible. Place the nest box at least 3m off the ground, bearing in mind the threat of cats. Grey squirrels are an even greater threat to nests and chicks but they are very difficult to keep at bay. If you have some bird feeders in your garden, make sure they are not near a nest box – that will mean too much disturbance near the nest.

I know of one farmer who has gone to great lengths for our sand martins and constructed a concrete bank of sand martin nest holes on the side of his lake, and very successful they are.

Finally, can I make a plea for our very hard-pressed swifts? We are so ‘tidy’ today that we are cementing under the eaves where the swifts used to nest in our attics and we are losing colonies wholesale because when they return to their traditional building in the spring it has been blocked up. Now we can even purchase swift nest boxes online and, to me, nothing screams summer like swifts.

Photographs: Colin Smale

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