Friday, 29 January 2016

Checking out Nest Boxes.

We have a variety of bird boxes in place over our farm and this is the time of year when I am usually out and about checking on them.  As natural cavities become less common, many species that depend on them do very well in man-made nest boxes.  The species we mainly target here on the farm are the wood ducks, eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and northern flickers.

Wood Ducks
 Many of the wood duck boxes are only accessible this time of year due to the frozen ponds so I take advantage of the cold weather to clean them out from last year and put in fresh shavings.

 The wood duck is probably the most commonly known  duck nest box user, but bufflehead, common goldeneye and hooded merganser will also make use of them.  Usually the wood duck is the only one nesting in our area of Ontario, but last year a batch of hooded mergansers was raised on one of our ponds.

Unusual species sometimes make themselves at home in the boxes and screech owls and squirrels are quite common.  It is more unusual to find a hibernating raccoon like I did in this box. This is also a sign that the box needs repairs.  

We have had many successful wood duck hatches over the years.  The photo below shows a duck nest with a mouse nest build overtop later.  This duck nest was successful as hatched shell fragments can be seen among the nest materials and were evident as I cleaned it out.

But with success, comes the occasional abandoned nest.
 I clean out last years nest material and replace with fresh shavings, not sawdust as it  could cause newly hatched ducklings to suffocate.

Notice the wear on the pieces under the hole made by years of ducklings using them to climb out.

Bluebirds and Tree Swallows
I also cleaned out other boxes I come across. 

Tree Swallow
The nest below is characteristic of a tree swallow, but bluebirds and chickadees have also been known to nest in the boxes.

Tree swallows use feathers found in the general area to build their nests, making them fairly easy to recognize.  

Tree swallow nest with egg.

Note the baby tree swallows in the middle of the mass of feathers
The empty nest.
I do not have any photos of bluebird nests as they are less frequent nesters on the farm.  However they do take up residence in a box from time to time and their nests of fine grasses are also quite easy to identify.

Northern Flicker

I have not yet observed flickers actually using the boxes, but flickers are residents here during the nesting season and so I am always hopeful. 


 It is not just the birds that can make use of a box.  This one was put up in the hopes of encouraging our local bat population.


  1. I need to get out and clean our boxes. The snow has almost all melted here, so it will be easy getting around. I would like to put out some duck boxes and maybe this will be the year an American Kestrel nests in the box we build... fingers crossed.

    1. That would be cool to get kestrels nesting. Hope it works out for you.

  2. This time of year we usually can walk out on ice to clean out our boxes. However, with the relatively mild winter, it is not safe! Hopefully later on it will be cold enough to form some good ice, otherwise the boxes will not get cleaned. It is interesting what is in the boxes. Sometimes we have found live Screech owls, dead Screech owls, remains of Flying Squirrels, or other meaty morsels cached by owls.

    1. Hi Blake,

      I agree with what you said about the ice. Nest boxes are not worth jeopardizing safety. If I'm at all in doubt or if the box is near moving water, it doesn't get checked either.

      It's fun to see what shows up in the boxes, piecing together the puzzle of what has taken place in each one.

  3. Interesting post Jonathan & great work!

    1. Thanks Leslie. It's a winter routine that I really look forward to each year.