Each spring, many readers ask how to use nest boxes to attract eastern bluebirds, tufted titmice, Carolina and black-capped chickadees, and house and Carolina wrens. Many readers specifically ask how long the process will actually take.
Here’s a specific example from a year ago. In March 2018, I wrote about hanging a bluebird box in perfect habitat for my 5-year-old grandson, Garek, in his North Carolina backyard. The neighborhood is surrounded by mature stands of tall oaks and other deciduous trees, while the actual residential area is relatively open.
When my daughter and her husband moved to this neighborhood almost seven years ago, I did not expect to find bluebirds there. It seemed too residential. But I was wrong. Bluebirds were quite common; I heard them whenever I stepped outside when we visited.
So what better way to pique Garek’s interest in birds than hang a bluebird box. That there were also healthy numbers of chickadees, titmice, and Carolina wrens was just a bonus.
When I explained my plan to Garek, he bubbled with excitement. First, I explained that I could not promise birds would immediately use the nest box. I explained that it could be days, weeks, or even months until bluebirds adopted the box. Of course, Garek wanted to check the box every 10 minutes to see if a bluebird had started building a nest. Have you ever tried to explain patience to a 5-year-old?
Unfortunately, the box went unoccupied for an entire year. With kids playing nearby in the yard every day, I concluded there was just too much activity near the nest box.
One year later
Fast forward to March 2019. I checked the box and found a few pieces of fresh green moss on the floor. Either a chickadee or a titmouse was interested. Both species nestle the cup of their nest into a foundation of fresh green moss.
But Garek, his brother, and friends still played in the yard, so I tried not to get too hopeful. Then in the third week of April, Garek’s family took a vacation. The yard was quiet for six days.
After they returned, my wife checked the box on April 21. She told me there was a nest, containing bits of moss in the base, but pieces of dried leaves comprised most of the nesting material. (Bluebird nests typically consist of dried leaves or pine needles.)
Based on Linda’s description, I knew this was a titmouse nest. She was reluctant to look too closely, so she didn’t see if the nest cradled any eggs.
A few days later I checked the nest myself. It reached to within two inches of the entrance hole, but the cup was so deep I couldn’t see in. So I gently reached in and pulled back the cup to examine the contents.
From deep in the nest, a titmouse hunkered down as far as she could, glared up at me, and repeatedly snapped her bill and hissed.
I immediately closed the box. I would keep my discovery a secret until the four or five eggs hatched. Incubating birds sometimes abandon a nest if disturbed too frequently. I decided I wouldn’t tell Garek about the nest until after the eggs hatch.
Because females spend most of their time in the nest incubating the clutch, their presence can easily go undetected. After the eggs hatch, parents become much more conspicuous as they bring food to the nest every few minutes all day long. Parents rarely abandon a nest after the eggs hatch.
Use this account as an object lesson for dealing with active nest boxes. Enjoy the action from a reasonable distance for about two weeks.
Most cavity-nesting chicks leave the nest about 16 to 21 days after hatching. If disturbed during their final days in the box, they may fledge prematurely and surely become victims of cats, raccoons, or snakes.
In a future column, I will describe the fate of the titmouse nest.
One final lesson: A nest box is a success when used by any native cavity-nester. A successful titmouse, chickadee, nuthatch, or wren nest is just as valuable and rewarding as a bluebird nest.
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