Nest Boxes, a.k.a Birdhouses

Photo © Diane Marshman

In the Northern hemisphere, nesting season starts for many birds in late February and extends through the summer months. For instance, these Great Horned Owls had two offspring in 2016 that hatched on February 25th. Watching nesting birds is one of the treasures of spring and summer months. There is a great thrill in witnessing the tireless effort birds put into building nests, laying eggs, caring for their young, protecting their chicks and then, of course, watching the flying lessons during fledging. Providing nest boxes, also known as birdhouses, on your property is one way to enhance the experience.

Backyard Bird Oasis

Photo © Mary Dunn

Nest boxes? Why install nest boxes if I have trees and shrubs available for birds to build their nests? Providing native habitat is the ideal scenario for creating reliable, resilient nesting areas; but, many birds need tree cavities to nest in. As NestWatch Project Leader Robyn Bailey explained, “You can have all the native habitat you want, but you still won’t get bluebirds nesting without a cavity.”


Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

If you have several snags or dead limbs that you leave standing, you may have enough available tree holes to support cavity-nesting birds. These features are found readily available in thriving intact native ecosystems. On heavily-managed properties, however, dead or dying wood is often removed leaving few opportunities for cavities in trees to form.

You can have all the native habitat you want, but you still won’t get bluebirds nesting without a cavity.

While woodpeckers are able to excavate their own nesting holes, most cavity-nesting birds rely on the holes created by others. The creation of sizable holes for nesting can take several years. Snags must be left standing, woodpeckers must create cavities in the tree, then in subsequent years, nesting birds must find those cavities. Nest boxes are one solution for speeding up the availability of “holes” at a location.


Photo © pwkpwkpwk

Whether you want to provide more nesting options for your favorite birds, are looking for a fun afternoon activity with your child, niece, nephew or grandchild, or maybe you are a Bird Cams enthusiast and you want to set up that new nestcam—then building a nest box is a great option.


Photo © EhrichB

Maybe you’ve seen bluebirds on your property year round but never find them nesting and you’d like to help them out. Nest boxes, if chosen and installed properly, are a wonderful addition to any property. They can change the way you interact with birds and give you fresh insight. There is nothing quite like finding your first clutch of eggs nestled safely in a nest box you installed.

Eastern Bluebirds

Did you know nest boxes are credited with helping to re-establish Eastern Bluebird populations? Bluebird populations were severely declining in the 1970s. With focused conservation efforts, like communities installing nest boxes, populations have steadily increased.open_in_new

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Photo © NestWatch

NestWatch, a citizen-science project based at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is an excellent resource. The website is a one-stop-site for educational information on nesting birds, nest boxes, and data on nesting statistics.

Is a nest box for me?

Before installing a nest box, consider answering these questions.

  • What kind of birds would you like to encourage to nest on your property? And, are those birds found living and nesting in your area?
  • Have you chosen a nest box that is specific to the birds you want to attract?
  • Have you built or chosen a nest box that is safe for nesting birds?
  • Is the site free from ecological traps that could threaten nesting birds?
  • Do you want to contribute data to NestWatch as part of your nest watching experience?

Let’s address each of these one at a time.

eastern screech owl

Photo © Julia Schreuder

What kind of birds would you like to encourage to nest on your property? And, do those birds nest in your area?
We all have our favorite birds. But, just because you put up a nest box does not mean those birds will show up. Knowing regional and ecological needs of your local birds will tell you whether setting up a nest box for them is realistic on your property. One resource that can help you with this is NestWatch’s common nesting birds. Here you can search by region, nest type, habitat, and substrate to see if the birds can be found where you live. Knowing the exact needs of your favorite nesting birds will increase your chances of successfully providing nesting habitat for them.

birdhouse entrance hole.jpg

Photo © NestWatch: Kevin Ripka

Have you chosen a nest box that is specific to the birds you want to attract?
Different birds have different nesting needs. This goes for the size of the hole that the birds use as their entrance, the size of the nest box itself, and the height at which the birds usually build their nest. Use the NestWatch Right Bird, Right House tool to successfully find the ideal nest box size for the birds you want to attract. Without the right dimensions and characteristics for your nest box, you may miss out on successfully attracting the birds you want. Once you know your ideal size for the nest box, explore this article on how to successfully install it.

baby kestrels

Photo © Mrs. Bullfrog

Have you built or chosen a nest box model that is safe for nesting birds?
Ensuring your nest box is safely designed for nesting birds is important. Use untreated wood, since chemicals used to preserve wood may impact the health of birds and their offspring. For the same reason, we also recommend skipping stains and paints. Nest boxes also need to be water tight. Wet conditions may allow eggs to cool during periods when the parents leave the nest. To ensure a dry nest, find a nest box with a sloping roof, thick walls with sufficient ventilation, and most importantly, one that can be opened for nest checking and cleaning.


Photo © Kate Lowry

A final feature of a safe nest is a predator guard (pictured above is a stovepipe baffle). A predator guard will deter animals from being able to scurry up the pole and harvest bird eggs or chicks. For more hints on making sure your next box is safe for birds, explore the Features of a Good Birdhouse infographic.

cat bird killer

Photo © Domenico Salvagnin

Is the site free from ecological traps that could threaten nesting birds?
Birds will choose to nest in areas they sense are safe and have sufficient resources. Sometimes, however, there are unseen dangers. Ecologists refer to these as ecological traps. Are there stray cats or other predators that could prey on nesting birds? Are the nest boxes located too close to windows that birds could hit when leaving their nest box? Are pesticides or fertilizers frequently applied to areas around the nest box? Thoroughly check the area where you install your nest box to make sure it is free from potential ecological traps.To learn more about Ecological Traps, read our detailed article on how to avoid this phenomenon.

Mom checking out a nest box

Photo © Eric Gropp

Do you want to contribute data to NestWatch as part of your nest watching experience?
Using citizen-science data, NestWatch monitors the status and trends in the reproductive biology of birds, including when nesting occurs, number of eggs laid, how many eggs hatch, and how many hatchlings survive.

tree swallows in nestbox

Photo © Leslie Clapp

Their database can be used to study the current conditions of breeding bird populations and how they may be changing over time as a result of our changing climate, habitat degradation and loss, expansion of urban areas, and the introduction of non-native plants and animals.

man checking nest box

Photo © Oakley Originals

If you want to monitor and enter data for the birds that nest in your box, it is important to review the code of conduct for nest monitoring. Monitoring birds requires that you follow specific guidelines since they are protected wildlife. Make life easy on yourself and install your nest box in an area that you can easily access for monitoring. If it is hard to access you will be less likely to continue monitoring throughout the season.


Photo © NestWatch

One way to make data collection easier is to consider installing a nest cam in your nest box. This will allow you to watch nesting birds from the comfort of your own home on your T.V., laptop, or smartphone. If this sounds like your kind of fun we invite you to read more at the link above.

nestbox in suburb

Photo © nebirdsplus

Nest boxes are a fun way to engage in birdwatching and citizen science. They are excellent habitat features that you can install no matter where you live. As long as nest boxes are designed and installed properly, you provide an essential ecological feature that birds may otherwise struggle to locate on highly-managed properties.

Remember to add your nest boxes to your map.

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Photo © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Then, upload photos directly to this object to document the activity in your nest box.

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