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Simple Ways to Help Conserve Birds: Put Up a Nest Box

 When I hear the stirrings of bird courtship, generally in mid-March, I know it’s time to check my bird boxes. The titmouse singing “peter-peter-peter,” the   cardinal calling “what-cheer, what-cheer,” the woodpecker rattling on favorite sounding boards, (what is it about guys and their drums?), these are signs  that the back of winter has been thoroughly broken and nesting time is near.

 Many bird species, as well as other animals, require cavities for nesting and/or resting - maybe last year’s woodpecker nest hole, maybe an old tree  wound, maybe a rotted out imperfection in a wooden fence post. One summer I hung my cut-off shorts out to dry (sideways) a little too long, only to find that a house wren had begun making its nest inside!!

 More than a century ago, having birds about the farmhouse was considered good luck, and many an old hat was hung on the barn side in the hopes that (beneficial) insectivorous birds would take up residence. With the sylvicultural practice of cutting down dead trees for firewood, the advent of metal fence posts, the proliferation of (invasive) house sparrows and the increasing development of rural landscapes generally (all still common problems today), many cavity nesting birds fell into decline by the mid-1900s, especially NY’s official state bird, the Eastern Bluebird. (Thankfully, the unqualified success of the recent bluebird box mania allowed NYS to take the bluebird off of its Species Of Special Concern list in 1997; and all it took was lots of people putting up lots of bird houses in suitable habitat!?).

 Living in the country, I’ve been lucky to be able to hang two dozen nest boxes throughout my neighborhood. And come mid-March, I know it’s time to go out and take attendance. A roof needs replacing, there’s old nest material to be removed, maybe an old wasp comb, or an active mouse nest encouraging rot. Soon the bluebirds will be returning to proclaim that spring has sprung (although, like their robin cousins, some do over-winter here if available food allows), and my boxes will be ready to welcome their territorial intentions.

 But not just bluebirds. House wrens love bird boxes, especially if embraced by shrubs or tall grasses. And once flying bugs emerge, tree swallows will return, looking to exploit available cavities. More likely, resident house sparrows will already have claimed some of the boxes, being the first on scene during this frenetic nesting season. Or maybe resident chickadees. They all need cavities, and I welcome them all. To be fair, it should be noted that many, maybe most, ornithologists would not recommend erecting nest boxes where (those pesky, non-native) house sparrows might take over (namely, near buildings). But erecting and watching a nest box directly immerses you in bird conservation, heightens awareness and appreciation of birds, and stimulates engagement in further environmental action, so don’t feel guilty about giving it a try.

 If you do not have a bird box in the yard, you should consider putting one up this March. Birds make nest site decisions early, so it is best to act earlier rather than later. Just e-mail president@capitalregionaudubon.org and we’ll gladly mail you free bird house specs and other helpful info. Our chapter also has birdhouses available for sale (as do several reputable garden shops and bird supply stores in the Capital Region). Early nest occupancy often leaves time for a second nesting, occasionally a third. Plus, early arrivals often use bird boxes to roost during periods of cold April weather. Oh, there’ll be different expectations, whether urban or rural. (For example, bluebirds are not urban birds.) But putting out a box now, wherever you live, will be good for birds. And great fun for your family, too.