Nest Boxes: Not Just for Spring and Summer

Nest boxes. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

Many people who love watching birds focus their attention on nest boxes in the spring and summer in the hope of seeing avian parents bringing food to nestlings — and if they’re lucky, getting to see the young leave the nest and fly for the first time.

Those of us who are blessed with yards or have a voice in deciding amenities for public spaces may put up nest boxes on poles and trees. (Poles with baffles are a better choice as it makes it harder for snakes and raccoons to enter and eat the eggs and nestlings.)

What many people don’t realize is that nest boxes can be enjoyable birding spots in the fall and winter as well. As more and more people choose not to leave snags in their neighborhoods and/or have trees removed from properties, birds are losing places to construct their natural nest cavities. Nest boxes help make up a little bit for that habitat destruction.

Various species of birds use nest boxes as warm overnight abodes when the temperatures fall to near freezing and below. I’ve seen birds as varied as Eastern bluebirds, brown-headed nuthatches, Carolina wrens and downy woodpeckers flitting from one box to another — examining each one inside and out.

Another reason that birds check out nest boxes in winter is to get a head start on choosing possible nesting sites come spring and summer. In my own yard, especially the Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches will visit one nest box after another to decide which one they might choose as a brooding site in the spring. The nuthatches may be accompanied by offspring from the previous summer, who will help raise their siblings.

Nest boxes. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.

The competition for nest boxes as warm overnight roosting spots can be intense. One male downy woodpecker has adopted a particular box as his overnight abode, but the bluebirds would rather have the residence for themselves. He gets there in the late afternoon and sometimes must pass angry birds to squeeze through the hole.

The bluebirds then will scold from atop the box and while hovering in front of the entrance, but he hunkers down and refuses to leave.

Nest boxes. Photo by Maria de Bruyn.

If you choose to offer the birds some help in finding nesting and roosting cavities, please get a plain wooden box, either a nesting or a roosting box. The pretty decorative ones (e.g., painted with doors and windows) look nice and might get occupants, but they can disintegrate quickly in the rain.

As 2021 gets underway, my wish for you readers is that this new year is healthy, happy and as worry-free as possible for you!

And if you’re in a position to do so, please also help out people who need residential assistance by supporting organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, Empowerment and A Lotta Love. Thanks!

Maria de Bruyn participates in several nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers at Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the Orange County Senior Center, leads a nature-themed virtual book club, and writes a blog focusing on wildlife at

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