Bird House Information
This page contains all of the must-know information for anyone who is currently, or planning to some time in the future, maintain bird nestboxes. Some of the topics covered on this page include "Before You Start", information you need to know before taking on a bird housing project, solutions to basic problems that might, and often do, occur and much more.
Before You Start-
Before you take on the project of maintaining bird houses, you should first be aware of what is involved. This list is compiled mainly from experience, and contains all of the information that I wish I had known the first time I tried to maintain bird houses.
Don't be afraid to get dirty
I have chosen 'Don't be afraid to get dirty' as my first point in discussion because it is on of the most important points to consider before beginning a birdhouse project. I would highly advise anyone who does not wish to get dirty, in very unexpected ways I might add, to dismiss the idea of maintaing bird houses immediately. When I first decided to maintain nest boxes, I did not consider this factor. I thought that I would simply watch the birds raise their babies, dump the nest out, and wait for another nest to appear. I counted on fecal sacs to keep the nestbox fairly clean inside, but I did not consider the fact that some birds do not have this method of waste removal at their disposal, and this can make a huge difference in what a nestbox looks like at the end of the nestin season. This is not the only 'dirty factor', however. Many more, sometimes much worse, are often involved, so read on before you decide that a birdhouse project is for you.
My first year when I put up two birdhouses, I was delighted to have a pair of tree swallows move into one nestbox and a pair of eastern bluebirds move into the other. The bluebirds were relatively clean, and their box only needed a thorough brushing with a wire brush (I used an old grill brush) to clean it up. The tree swallows, however, were much dirtier birds. Since tree swallows do not use fecal sacs to remove the west of their young, their droppings piled up in the box over their entire 33 day stay in the nest. You can imagine mess in the bottom of the box that was left when they were gone. But that was not the worse part. One day I went out to check on the baby swallows- the second to last time before they would fledge- and after I took a quick peek inside, I closed the lid and went to check the bluebirds. But as I was walking, it felt like an insect was walking up my hand. I looked down, and saw (much to my horror, at the time) that half of my hand was literally black from the number of mites crawling up my hand (if you have never seen a mite, you can guess how small they are by their name, giving you an idea of the vast number of mites it would take to cover half of one's hand). I needn't explain what happened afterwards, but it wasn't a fun experience. The reason I tell this story is to give you an idea of how nasty the bird housing business can be. If you aren't up to the task, don't even try to begin.
Be prepared to put alot of work into the project
Whether you have just one or two bluebird boxes or you decide to start a bluebird trail, be prepared to put alot of work into the project. If you think that you are just going to put up a box and be done with it, you are wrong. Any number of problems could arise. After you put up a box, problems can arise even before a bird claims the box. In many circumstances a pair of house sparrows may try to claim the box. It takes some work to oust a pair of determined house sparrows. In some circumstances, if a pair of bluebirds has claimed the box, a house sparrow may trap a bluebird inside and kill it. Other problems can include predators (other than house sparrows, these include snakes, raccoons, squirrels, mice, and more) and parasites infesting the box. However, with work there are ways to prevent these problems, or to stop them once the problem has arisen, but once again, it takes work. No matter what your are facing- snakes, house wrens, mites, or paper wasps- there is a method to prevent these problems, or stop them once they have began. It is by no means easy, but is essential for a pair of happy, healthy bluebirds. It also keeps their babies safer, giving them a higher chance of survival. Many anecdotes will be provided to help you prevent and/or stop the problems from occuring.
Now that you know all that is involved in maintaining a birdhouse, if you feel up to the task at hand, don't hesitate to begin. If you have read the above and are prepared to take on the task, then you are most likely going to succeed. However, as a word of warning, don't bite off more than you can chew, to borrow the colloquialism. I reccommend that you begin with no more than two boxes, but only one if you live in aan area with a high house sparrow population. Battling house sparrows can be a very long and difficult task. By reading all of the coming information on how to get started with your project, you should be equipped well enough to successfully begin housing the birds at your house.
Once you have a birdhouse (or two), you are ready to get started. The only thing you need to do to attract some birds into your box is find suitable habitat for the species that you wish to attract, and set up your houses in a way that protects them from predators.
Depending on what species of bird you are trying to attract, you will need to look for diffreent habitats. While there are about 13 species that will use nestboxes in Ohio, they each require specific habitats, box sizes, and have their own nestbox placement needs. In this section I will discuss the habitats that native cavity nesters live in, and for each habitat list the bird species that use nest boxes in that habitat.
Though there are many native cavity nesting birds in Ohio, the majority of them are woodland birds, and only four regularly nest in open grassy areas. These species are the eastern bluebird, tree swallow, Carolina wren and the purple martin. Each of these species prefer large, open grassy areas (in the case of eastern bluebird, with scattered trees to serve as hunting perches), preferably an area such as a pasture or golf course where the grass is kept low (tree swallows and purple martins require a form of still water-ponds or lakes- to be near their nesting sites). All of these species will use a 1 1/2" entrance hole, and a nest box height of five feet. To encourage house wrens to use a nest box, place it near a hedgerow.
Birds that in a wooded habitat usually require a nest box to be placed higher up than other species that do not nest in the forest, because forest-dwellers naturally nest in dead trees, which are generally at a height of anywhere between twelve feet high and up. Another thing to remember when placing a nest box for forest-dwelling birds is that they face another predator which field-dwellers often don't have to worry about- squirrels. Also remember, there are only three species that regularly nest in grassy habitats, which means that one hole size works for all three species, which is not the cae for woodland cavity-nesters. Woodland cavity-nesters range in size from the small house wren to the large red-bellied woodpecker (an irregular nestbox user). This means that hole sizes can range from 1 1/4" to over 2".
The most common woodland cavity nesting birds include house wrens, Carolina and black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers and white-breasted nuthatches. Please note that some of these bird species are irregular nest box users, which means that though they have been recorded as using nestboxes in the past, they prefer to drill their own holes in dead trees. It often helps stimulate a natural-cavity feeling on woodland birds if you stuff the boxes with sawdust, which the birds prefer in their nesting cavities anyways. All of these birds prefer their boxes to be placed at least twelve feet high either within the edge of a woods or deep in the forest.
Getting a proper nest box
For different bird species you will need different types of nest boxes. Some nest boxes will work for multiple species, however. To find a suitable nest box plan (I do not have any nest box plans on my website), I suggest you look at Ohio Division of Wildlife's (ODNR) publication Attracting Birds, or ODNR's Nest Box Plans publication.
Placing a nest box
There are multiple things to consider when placing a nest box. The first is habitat. You can find a species habitat table at the bottom of this page to learn what what habitats are required for which species of bird.
After you have found suitable habitat to place your nest box in, there isn't much left to do except to put up your nest box. This is relatively easy for you and safe for the birds which will use the nest box if you only keep to simple rules in mind when placing the nest box. First, you should never mount a nest box directly to a tree, wooden fence post, or other object that can be climed by predators (or closer than six feet to such an object where a predator such as a squirrel could jump to the box). Good choices for mounting are metal fence posts, metal piping or PVC pipe. Secondly, it is a good idea (though not absolutely necessary if mounted properly) to put a predator guard on your nest box mount. This could simply be a portion of PVC pipe placed over the mount that you used.
Now that you have realized that housing birds can take some real work (and that you can get quite dirty in the process), and you are up to the task, there is nothing left for you to do except acquire (or make) a nest box and place it. Now there is nothing left to do but wait. For the best results, you should try to have your nest box up by mid March. At this point you need to monitor your box closely so that no invasive species (house sparrows or European starlings). But that is the next section.