Alongside offering birds food, providing them with a safe place to build a nest is one of the best things gardeners can do to help tackle the decline of wild bird populations.
Natural bird nesting sites, such as holes in trees or crevices in tumbledown walls, are disappearing as gardens are tidied and countryside sites are cleared for development. If birds can't nest, they can't bring up a brood – and this is one reason why some bird species have been in trouble in recent years.
Within 10 years a single nest box can provide shelter for 100 baby blue tits – and as blue tits love to eat aphids and other garden pests, they’re pretty handy to have around!
Late winter or early spring is a good time to put up a nest box, giving the birds time to find a home before the breeding season begins in March.
There are many different types of nest box available: a small box with a small hole makes a good home for blue tits, great tits or sparrows, while an open-fronted box could attract wagtails or robins.
If buying a bird box, it's important to choose one that can be opened up and cleaned out at the end of the nesting season, from August onwards. Old nesting material can harbour parasites and diseases that could harm subsequent broods.
Build your own
Most nest boxes are inexpensive to buy, but they're also pretty easy to make – even if your woodworking skills aren’t that great! Check out these simple step-by-step instructions on the RSPB website.
Bird boxes should be positioned on a sturdy fence, wall, shed or tree, avoiding anything facing south-west; the direction from which most of our wet and windy weather arrives. The ideal orientation is between north and east, as this will also avoid strong sunlight.
Boxes should be placed out of reach of cats – at least two metres off the ground should be fine, although robins, wrens and wagtails do prefer to nest a little lower than this – with a clear flight path in and out, for easy access.
It's a good idea to provide nesting material too. This can be any natural fibre or plant materials such as:
- Dry grasses
- Hair or fur
- Moss raked from lawns
Offer a mix of strong materials to construct the nest, and softer materials to line and insulate the nest and provide cushioning for eggs. Avoid using anything that may have been treated with pesticides.
Put materials in a hanging basket or empty suet feeder – or just leave in a pile in a dry, sheltered place that birds can access easily.
Placing nesting materials near the nest box makes it easier for birds to gather what they need, without them using up valuable energy reserves.
Not all birds will choose a purpose-built bird box to nest in – they sometimes make their homes in the strangest places. Upturned watering cans, hanging baskets, peg bags and old flowerpots could all end up housing a brood.
Blackbirds, great tits and robins, in particular, have a tendency to choose unusual homes – they’ve even been found nesting inside traffic cones, post boxes and in the pockets of washing left hanging on the line!
In fact, any nook or cranny could be seen as a potential nesting site – so be extra careful when clearing up around the garden so you don’t accidentally destroy a nest.