Winter seems reluctant to release her icy grip this year, but trust me, spring is coming. Days are getting longer, and birds are starting to sing. Female gray and fox squirrels are pregnant, Lake Erie bald eagles are incubating eggs, and skunk cabbage shoots are poking through the snow. So it's really not too soon to begin planning for the upcoming nesting season, especially if you enjoy birds that nest in bird houses.
Bluebirds, chickadees, and other cavity-nesters won't begin nesting until late March or early April, but they're already house-hunting. Many other cavity-nesters including titmice, wrens, and screech-owls, eagerly use nest boxes -- if we build them correctly and place them in the proper habitat.
Feeders attract more species and individual birds, but nothing brings greater satisfaction than providing nesting habitat for cavity-nesters. I've been building and monitoring nest boxes for more than 20 years, and I've never gotten bored. And I've never found a better way to ignite a child's interest in nature and conservation than by allowing her to help monitor an active nest.
Getting started is easy. Just build or buy a nest box and hang it on a post about five feet high. Protect it from below with a baffle to discourage predators. A nest box in a hayfield or pasture might attract bluebirds, one near a thicket will draw wrens, and one on the forest edge will appeal to chickadees and titmice. Larger boxes will attract screech-owls, kestrels, wood ducks or even hooded mergansers. By getting an early start, birds are more likely to accept nest boxes as part of the natural environment. Here are a few sources of more information on nest boxes and attracting cavity-nesters.
If you're just thinking about building a nest box send me one dollar and a self-addressed, stamped envelope (RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033). In return, I'll send you some simple nest box plans and a table listing specific habitat requirements and construction details. For more information about the natural history of cavity nesters, consult my book, Backyard Bird Homes. (You can order a signed copy directly from me for $4, ppd.)
Visit local store
If you prefer to purchase a nest box, visit a local wild bird store or nature center. Or contact David Magness for well made bluebird boxes (JennaBird, P.O. Box 328, Whiteford, MD 21160; 1-800-500-2473). Magness knows bluebirds, makes quality products, and prices them reasonably. He also sells mealworms, mealworm feeders, and house sparrow traps.
If you're an experienced nest box landlord, I recommend The Bluebird Monitor's Guide by Cynthia Berger, Keith Kridler, and Jack Griggs. It answers virtually any question you may have encountered while working with bluebirds and other cavity-nesters.
If you'd like to contribute your findings to a national research project, join The Birdhouse Network (TBN), one of many research projects sponsored by Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. Like participants in another of the Lab's popular citizen-science efforts -- Project FeederWatch -- TBN participants receive a welcome packet with instructions, information, and a TBN newsletter. Whether you maintain one or a hundred nest boxes, you're welcome to participate. Results are sent online to the Lab for analysis and publication. Each year's results are reported in Birdscope, the Lab's quarterly newsletter.
Jammed with info
TBN's Web site (www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse) is jammed with information on cavity-nesters and includes several Web-cams showing images from nests of a variety of species. The cost to join TBN, $15 ($12 for Lab members), helps to pay for materials, the newsletter, postage, and data analysis. Sign up online, or call (800) 843-BIRD.
Finally, to support bluebird conservation, consider joining the North American Bluebird Society (P.O. Box 244, Wilmot, OH 44689). You'll find a wealth of information on bluebirds at its Web site (www.nabluebirdsociety.org), as well as instructions for becoming a member.
If this long, snowy winter's got you down, think spring. Think bluebirds. And put up a few nest boxes. They'll have eggs before you know it.