Out My Backdoor: Location Critical for Bird Nesting Boxes

By Terry W. Johnson

In the real estate business it is often said the value of a property is determined by three things location, location, location. The same holds true for nesting boxes. Where you erect a bird house will determine what bird will nest there since all cavity-nesting birds prefer to nest in certain
habitats and will rarely nest anywhere else.

For that reason, try as we might, it is difficult to get an eastern bluebird to nest in a heavily wooded backyard or a screech owl to use a box in the middle of a large open yard.

In Georgia, some 30 species of birds nest in tree cavities. If you know what you are doing, you can coax some of these birds to nest in artificial nesting sites in backyards. Lets take a look the preferred nesting sites of 10 species of birds that nest in yards across the state.

Brown-headed nuthatch: Measuring only 3-and-a-half inches long, this nuthatch is Georgia's smallest cavity nesting bird. It will nest in boxes erected only five feet above the ground in backyards with medium to large pines or hardwoods. You will know when this feathered sprite  has moved in because it will stuff bits of pine needles and other materials in the cracks between the boards of the box.

Carolina chickadee: The Carolina chickadee shares the same nesting habitat with the brown-headed nuthatch. Many a homeowner has been startled when they peeked into a nest box occupied by a Carolina chickadee and was greeted with the birds snake-like hissing.

Tufted titmouse: When you step outside and are greeted by a Peter, Peter, Peter call, you know a tufted titmouse is close by. This bird also likes to nest in park-like backyards dominated by mature pines and/or hardwoods. This titmouse prefers boxes placed from 5 to 15 feet above the ground.

House wren: If you live north of Macon,  you might be able to entice a house wren to nest in your yard. They build their bulky twig nest in boxes 5 to 10 feet above the ground in open yards. However, like the more common Carolina wren, they will also occasionally build nests in strange places such as  in boxes or boots stored in garages.

Purple martin: Once nesting in hollow trees, purple martins breeding east of the Mississippi River now nest exclusively in manmade nest sites. Martins nest in colonies using gourds and apartment houses, though the birds seem to prefer natural gourds. When trying to attract  martins for the first time, erect no more than eight nesting structures in an area without any trees within 40 feet. Gourds or houses should be erected on poles 8 to 20 feet above the ground. Your chances of success are better if an existing nesting colony is nearby.

Tree swallow: Once known to nest only in Northeast Georgia, tree swallows now nest sparingly as far south as Middle Georgia. Tree swallows will compete with bluebirds for boxes situated in open yards. Nest boxes erected for this cavity-nesting swallow should be positioned 5 to 15 feet above the ground. When given a choice, they prefer to nest near lakes and ponds.

Eastern screech owl: Often mistaken for baby great horned owls, the screech owl will nest in wooded backyards  particularly those within a stones throw of streams and swamps. Boxes should be attached to trees 10 to 30 feet above the ground closest to the lowest branches on a tree.

Great crested flycatcher: If your yard borders a woodland or has a few mature pines or hardwoods you might attract this  noisy flycatcher to a box placed 8 to 20 feet above the ground. Great crested flycatchers have a habit of placing discarded snake skins in their nests.

Northern flicker: Woodpeckers are notoriously difficult to attract to nesting boxes. However, some homeowners have enjoyed success coaxing this flicker to boxes when they were filled to the bottom of the entrance hole with sawdust. If you have an open, wooded yard and want to take a shot at trying to get a northern flicker to nest there, place a box 6 to 20 feet above the ground. Even if a flicker doesn't nest in your box, one may use it as a winter roost site.

Eastern bluebird: More nest boxes have been built for eastern bluebirds than for any other bird. Eastern bluebirds prefer to nest along fence lines or open yards bordered by woodlands. Boxes should be erected 4 to 6 feet above the ground.

If you want birds to nest in a box close to your home this year, buy or make a box designed for the birds you have the best chance of attracting to that habitat. Erect the box at the proper height, then sit back and wait. With a little luck, birds will soon be moving in.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, a noted backyard wildlife writer and expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group for Wildlife Resources' Nongame Conservation Section.