When birds choose where to nest, it’s a bit like when we choose where to live. We are looking at the house for sure, but we are also looking at the area. What are the schools like? How do the neighbours look? Are there good shops and a lovely park nearby? Well, the birds’ nesting checklist might be different, but you still need to tick all their boxes if you want them to nest in your garden. It’s about more than just hanging a nice nest box on the wall.
How To Get Birds to Nest Your Garden
When To Start Preparing
You could start preparing your garden for nesting birds and any time of year, but autumn and winter are the best times to make a start.
Although most birds won’t actually start building until the spring, they are checking out suitable sites during the winter.
What to Do in Winter To Prepare for Nesting Birds
Get your hedges trimmed. If you are planning to trim or cut back hedges, trees and bushes now is the time to get the work done. Cutting back during the nesting season would certainly disturb birds, and in some circumstances, it’s actually illegal.
Clean out and repair your nesting boxes. Don’t wait for spring to clean your nesting boxes – winter is the time to get this chore done, and see to any minor repairs that need doing.
Put Up Any New Nesting Boxes. Birds are looking for potential nesting sites now. So if you are putting up new nesting boxes now is the time to do it. This will give the birds time to find them and check them out. If you are thinking of repositioning existing boxes, the winter is the time to do this too.
Get Messy. Birds look for nesting sites that are close to adequate supplies of nesting materials. So keeping a very tidy garden in winter is going to put them off. Try to leave leaf litter around, don’t cut back undergrowth too hard or keep the lawn cut too short.
Making your Garden Attractive to Nesting Birds.
To get birds nesting in your garden, you need to cater to all of their basic requirements :
- Nesting Sites
- Nesting Materials
Let’s take a look at each of these needs and see how you can meet them in your garden.
The two essential things to remember when feeding birds to encourage nesting are consistency and variety.
Consistency means you need to keep feeding all year round. Even if it’s cold and wet you still have to get out there and fill those feeders. Remember, birds are looking for good places to nest in the winter if your feeders are empty that won’t be an encouraging sign for them.
In the winter, supplement shop-bought bird food with a natural larder by planting bushes with berries for birds. Things like Ivy, cotoneaster, holly and hawthorne provide a natural feast.
Variety is important. For many species of bird, like blue tits and robins, you will probably only get one nesting pair in your garden as they are territorial when breeding. So attracting a greater variety of birds will give you the chance of more nests in your garden.
Try providing some of these:
A good quality seed mix – will attract a whole range of birds including dunnocks, sparrows, blackbirds, robins and tits.
Mealworms – are loved by worm and grub eating birds, so again will be poplars with robins, blackbirds, tits. Robins and starlings.
Fat Balls and Suet Products – are especially important for energy in the winter and loved by most bird species.
Supplement these with a good selection of kitchen scraps for the best chance of drawing in a good variety of birds.
Don’t forget that different birds like to dine in different ways too. So as well as having a bird table it will be worth having a range of hanging feeders, which will be used by tits, sparrows and dunnocks. Ground feeders will attract robins and blackbirds.
Water is just as important as food to the birds, for drinking and bathing. You could go for a wildlife pond, a birdbath, or just a big, shallow dish of water, any will do.
There are a few basic rules when providing water for the birds:
- Keep it topped up. If you are providing a birdbath or dish of water, you’ll be amazed how quickly it disappears, especially when you get a gang of starlings splashing around in it,
- Keep it clean – birdbaths get dirty pretty quickly, and this can spread diseases. So keep it clean by giving it a good scrub once a week.
- Keep it visible from the sky – the birds won’t know you’re offering them a drink if they can’t see it.
- Don’t let it freeze – in winter, take a kettle out and top the bath up with warm water to break up any ice. Never use salt to stop your birdbath freezing.
We have a full guide to setting up and looking after a birdbath here.
Though birds live out in the open, they like a bit of shelter from the elements too. A very stripped-back, bare garden is not going to offer much protection from the elements for birds. Substituting hedges for fences, adding some trees or shrubs, or even a densely-planted border, will make the garden more attractive to nesting birds.
Some of us will be lucky enough to have natural nesting sites in our gardens. We have a mature copper beech hedge, and this always has nests in it. Planting shrubs, hedges and trees will provide natural nesting sites. But the majority of garden nesting probably happens in nest boxes.
To get the birds to use your boxes, it’s essential to choose the right boxes and put them in the right positions.
Choosing the Right Nest Boxes
With nest boxes as with food, variety is vital. Different birds naturally nest in different ways, so you will need a variety of boxes to give homes to several species of bird.
Birds that like to nest in a hole or cavity like the entrance to be a specific size, and they are quite picky. If the hole is too small, they can’t get in if it’s too big, they will feel exposed to predation.
As a guide choose:
Nest Boxes for Different Bird Species
|28mm circular||Tits and tree sparrows|
|32mm circular||Great Tit, sparrows, flycatcher and nuthatch|
|Open front||Robins, blackbirds, wren and thrush|
|Horizontal slit opening||swifts and swallows|
As you can see, there are several different kinds of nest boxes that you could use to attract a whole array of different species of bird.
Positioning Your Nest Box
Positioning your nest box is very important if you want to get birds to take up residence. Different species have different preferences, and we have a full guide here.
However, some rules are common to all types of nest box.
- Don’t place the box in direct sunlight. This will be too hot for baby chicks. So south-facing walls are out unless they are shaded by trees.
- Try to avoid positioning the box with its opening facing into the prevailing wind. No one wants wind and rain driving in through the open front door.
- Hang the box so it is slightly tilted forwards so any rain will bounce off the roof instead of running into the box.
- Be mindful of predators. Make sure that the box isn’t a sitting target for cats or other predators. This can be particularly important when you are placing boxes for ground-nesting birds like robins.
- Don’t place the nest boxes to close to your feeders. Your bird table and feeders are likely to be busy with many birds, this will mean too much activity to make a secure and private feeling nesting site.
Getting Your Nest Boxes Noticed
Now I’m going to contradict myself.
Whilst having feeders near to your nest boxes is a bad idea in the nesting season it can be an excellent way to get the birds to actually notice your nest box in the first place.
During the winter, move a feeder close to a new nest box and watch the birds come to explore.
As spring arrives, move the feeder away from the nest box and back to its usual position.
Take a Peek Inside
Whilst you certainly shouldn’t go opening up your nest boxes once the birds are in residence you could consider putting in a nest box camera to get a closer look at the action.
If you are thinking of doing this, the winter is the time to put one in. And If you have boxes that you know are regularly used, they are probably the best choice for your camera.
Even if you provide a nest box, the birds still need to build the actual nest. And they don’t want to be flying in their building materials from miles away. So to be attractive to nesting birds, your garden will need to have a good supply of nesting materials on hand.
Each species has their favourite nesting materials, but some on the wish list of many birds include:
- Leaves and pine needles
- Feathers and hair
- Small pebbles and stones.
- Straw, hay, grass clippings and plant stems.
- String, paper and card.
Your garden is likely to have some of these already. Being a bit slack on the garden tidying and allowing things to become a little overgrown and natural will also help.
You can also create a little birdie B & Q by gathering together a whole stash of nesting materials and presenting them for the birds.
You could drape them over trees and bushes, loosely stuff a peanut or fat ball feeder with them or put them in an old bucket or plant pot. If you’re feeling really creative, you can even make a kind of Christmas wreath out of nesting materials and hang it on a tree or fence.
When you provide extra nesting materials for the birds, there are a few things to remember:
- Cut string into short lengths, and paper/card into small pieces.
- Never offer plastics.
- Never offer anything that has been treated with pesticides or weed killers.
- Your birdie B & Q might get more customers if it is in a sheltered spot, keeping the nesting materials out of the worst of the rain.
Like anyone raising young, birds like to feel they are bringing their chicks into a safe and secure environment.
Knowing there is an adequate supply of food and water, and places to shelter from the elements in your garden will help to create a feeling of security.
Doing what you can to deter predators is also essential.
Birds of prey, foxes, magpies and even hedgehogs will take baby birds given the chance.
But the real problem is domestic cats. There are some 9 million domestic cats in the UK, and The RSPB estimates that a cat kills an average of 30 birds each year. That’s a big problem.
We have some advice for you on keeping your garden birds safe from cats here.
Making Your Garden Home Sweet Home For Nesting Birds
So we’ve seen that providing food, water, shelter, nesting opportunities, and a safe environment should encourage birds to nest in your garden.
But there is one more important thing you need: patience. We moved house a few years ago, and we had to wait till our third spring before one single bird set food in our nest boxes. The house had been empty for a while before we moved in, we made a few changes to the garden, and I guess the environment was just too unfamiliar to feel safe for nesting birds.
This year though, patience paid off, and we have bustling bird feeders and plenty of action in our nest boxes. We just had to wait it out.
Best of luck with attracting nesting birds. We hope you find the tips in this article useful and we’d love to hear your nest box stories. Leave us a comment below.