Spring in the Inland Northwest is a time of light, color and song. Birds return, providing a hopeful, joyous soundtrack for the season.
Birds in our area are most vocal in April, May and June, because they are looking for love. They sing to attract mates and stake out territories while seeking a place to build a nest, lay eggs, and raise young. It’s quite a show.
Installing nestboxes around your home is an easy way to help our feathered friends, while enjoying a front-row seat at this seasonal spectacle. It doesn’t matter if you live in Walla Walla or Wenatchee, have an urban lot or 40 acres – put up a proper nestbox in a good location, and the birds will come.
I speak from experience: I built my first nestboxes with my grandfather, and since then, I’ve made more than 1,500 of them. Along the way I’ve learned a lot.
Not all birds will use nestboxes. In fact, of the more than 400 species of birds in Washington State, only about 10 percent (roughly 40-plus species) are “cavity nesters.” Cavity nesters are birds that will only build a nest, lay eggs, and raise young inside something, such as a hollow in a dead tree – or a nestbox.
Common cavity-nesters native to the Inland Northwest include chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, bluebirds, tree or violet-Green Swallows, several species of owls, wood ducks, and kestrels, to name a few. All the various species of woodpeckers are also cavity-nesters – and perhaps the most important – because they create new nesting cavities each year and leave behind hollows that provide housing for all the other cavity-nesting birds.
When it comes to nestboxes, one size doesn’t fit all. For example, wrens and chickadees can access a nestbox with an entrance hole that is just 1 1/8” in diameter and a 4 x 4 inch floor provides plenty of space for these diminutive species to raise a family. By contrast, a proper nestbox for barn owls, a common cavity-nester throughout the Columbia Basin, requires an elliptical hole 5.25” wide and 4.25” tall and a floor measuring 23 by 11 inches wide!
In a pure state of nature, cavity-nesting birds depend entirely on hollows in standing dead trees, or snags. But people tend to cut down dead trees – for firewood, or because they perceive them as eyesores or hazards in danger of falling on something or someone.
“When you put up correctly proportioned nestboxes, you are creating, supplementing and enhancing critical breeding habitat in places that might not otherwise occur,” said Ken Bevis, a wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Bevis works with landowners to help educate them about the importance of preserving snags and encourages people to install nestboxes.
“It’s something tangible you can do to help,” said Bevis. “You can see the benefits and have the satisfaction of seeing the birds use the habitat you provided – it’s very gratifying.”
Installing nestboxes targeting cavity-nesting raptors common to Eastern Washington can result in ecological and economic benefits, said Megan Kirkpatrick, founder of the Northwest Raptor Project. She works with farmers, orchardists and vineyards interested in controlling pests such as voles, mice and gophers without relying in rodenticides.
“Local cavity-nesting raptors that will take to nestboxes include saw-whet, screech, barn and barred owls, as well as the kestrel – a small cavity-nesting falcon,” said Kirkpatrick. “Barn owls are particularly beneficial – one family will eat up to 4000 rodents in a single breeding season.”
Birds are not the only beneficial cavity-loving critters in our area. Bats will roost in properly designed and placed bat boxes. I know, you might be thinking “Bats!?! Why would I want them around?” For starters, the dozen or so species of bats in Eastern Washington eat an insane amount of mosquitoes. And, one of their favorite treats is the codling moth, a destructive pest that ruins our region’s apple and pear crops.
“Bats are an underappreciated puzzle piece in our landscape when it comes to insect control,” said Kent Woodruff, a Forest Service biologist for the Methow Valley Ranger District. “One Little Brown Bat – the most common bat in Eastern WA – can consume 600 mosquitos in an hour, times a colony of 100 bats is 60,000 mosquitos an hour, times hours in the night, times about 150 days a year when they are active…they make a big difference.”
You don’t have to be a carpenter to build a functional nestbox. But if you want to do it yourself, do it right. There are five basic features necessary for a nestbox that will truly benefit cavity-nesting birds: 1) Proper dimensions, including hole size, floor size and depth for the target species. 2) Ventilation (holes or a sheltered gap up under the roofline). 3) Drainage in the floor. 4) A roughed-up interior door to allow fledglings to climb out of the nestbox. 5) A simple way to open and clean out the nestbox once a year – this is very important for the health of the birds.
If you choose to buy a nestbox, make sure it has all the features listed above. Sadly, the majority of the “birdhouses” for sale are nothing more than cutesy, dysfunctional yard art made for people, not birds. Many are downright deadly. For example, a real nestbox should not have a perch (unnecessary, allows easy access for predators.) Anything with a metal roof is a bird microwave that will cook the eggs or nestlings on the first hot day of spring. For more information about building, buying or placing the right nestbox for your place, check out the “Learn More” box on this page.
While my grandfather has since passed on, those first nestboxes we made together (and a few dozen others) still hang around my home in the Methow Valley. Each spring, they are full of life and song. My 6-year-old daughter and I get a lot of joy and learning from watching and listening to “our” birds. It’s a tradition I hope will live on and on.
Nestwatch is a one-stop spot for nestbox plans, placement tips, bird ID and more: http://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a helpful page with a focus on creating nesting habitat for Washington species: http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/projects/index.html
Washington Audubon (http://wa.audubon.org) is a great place to learn more about our birds, go on a field trip, and connect with other bird-folk in your local area.
Patrick Hannigan of Twisp, WA is owner and founder of Nice Nests. He builds functional, species-specific nestboxes and works with landowners to preserve, create and enhance habitat for native cavity-nesting birds (and bats) in the Northwest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org