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Nestboxes buying guide

Providing a safe and snug place for birds to roost and nest in your garden can be a very rewarding experience - but there are so many to choose from. Our guide will help you decide which is best for you.

Click here to see our range of nestboxes.

Nestboxes for small birds
  • Nestboxes are excellent substitutes for the holes found in old trees. In young woodlands and plantations, and in many parks and gardens there may be plenty of food for small birds but nowhere for hole-nesting birds to nest.
  • Over 60 species are known to have used nestboxes. Regular residents include blue, great and coal tits, nuthatches, house and tree sparrows, starlings, spotted and pied flycatchers, robins, house martins, kestrels and tawny owls. Much depends on the type of the box, where it is located, and on its surroundings.
  • In recent years, the fortunes of many birds have varied. For example, blue and great tits have prospered, while house sparrows and starlings have declined. If you want to provide a nest box, try, if possible, to target those birds that genuinely need help.
Siting a nestbox
  • This depends on the species the box is intended for. Boxes for tits, sparrows or starlings should be fixed two to four metres up a tree or a wall.
  • Unless there are trees or buildings which shade the box during the day, face the box between north and east, thus avoiding strong sunlight and the wettest winds.
  • Make sure that the birds have a clear flight path to the nest without any clutter directly in front of the entrance. Tilt the box forward slightly so that any driving rain will hit the roof and bounce clear.
  • House sparrows and starlings will readily use nestboxes placed high up under the eaves. Since these birds nest in loose colonies, two or three can be sited spaced out on the same side of the house. Keep these away from areas where house martins normally nest.
  • Open-fronted boxes for robins and wrens need to be low down, below 2m, well hidden in vegetation. Those for spotted flycatchers need to be 2-4m high, sheltered by vegetation but with a clear outlook. Woodpecker boxes need to be 3-5m high on a tree trunk with a clear flight path and away from disturbance.
  • Fixing your nestbox with nails may damage the tree. It is better to attach it either with an aluminium screw, a nylon bolt or with wire around the trunk or branch. Use a piece of hose or a small section of bicycle or car tyre around the wire to prevent damage to the tree. Remember that trees grow in girth as well as height, and check the fixing every two or three years.
  • Two boxes close together may be occupied by the same species if they are at the edge of adjoining territories and there is plenty of natural food. While this readily happens in the countryside, it is rare in gardens, where you normally can only expect one nesting pair of any one species. The exceptions to this are house and tree sparrows and house martins, which are colonial nesters. By putting up different boxes, several species can be attracted.
  • Nestboxes are best put up during the autumn. Many birds will enter nestboxes during the autumn and winter, looking for a suitable place to roost or perhaps to feed. They often use the same boxes for nesting the following spring. Tits will not seriously investigate nesting sites until February or March.
Cleaning nestboxes
  • The nests of most birds harbour fleas and other parasites, which remain to infest young birds that hatch the following year. We recommend that old nests be removed in the autumn, from August onwards once the birds have stopped using the box.
  • Maintaining your box - Taking care, rinse the inside of the box briefly (to avoid melting any glue that may have been used in its construction), using boiling water to kill any remaining parasites, and let the box dry out thoroughly before replacing the lid. Insecticides and flea powders must not be used.
  • Unhatched eggs in the box, can only be removed legally between August and January - and must then be disposed of.
  • If you place a small handful of clean hay or wood shavings (not straw) in the box once it is thoroughly dry after cleaning, small mammals may hibernate there, or birds may use it as a roost site.
  • It is quite normal for a few eggs to fail to hatch, or for some young to die. Blue and great tits lay up to 14 eggs to allow for such losses. Cold weather and food shortage may lead to nest desertion, or to only the strongest young surviving. The death of one parent or interference from animals or humans may also cause desertion.
  • Avoid inspecting nestboxes in use, however tempting it may be to take a peek! Simply watch and enjoy from a distance. Only open it up if you've got appropriate skills and experience and are taking part in a monitoring project, such as the BTO’s Nest Record Scheme. If you want to see the chicks as they grow, you could consider installing a nestbox camera before the breeding season starts.
Conflicts at nestboxes
  • Birds aren't the only things that like to enter nestboxes. Predators and insects may also take up residence.
  • Birds such as sparrows and starlings often take over nesting holes used by tits. Most tits are able to defend a box successfully, provided that the intruder cannot get inside. A hole size of 25mm will exclude larger species.
  • Do not fix a perch on the front of any box, as this will encourage intruders. Birds don't need a perch in order to use the box.
  • By putting up nestboxes with different sized holes, you'll cater for a variety of species. Please remember that sparrows and starlings are in serious decline and may need help even more than the tits.
  • Do not place sparrow boxes too close to ones intended for other birds, especially house martin colonies.
  • Predators - Nestbox predators include cats, squirrels, rats, mice, stoats, weasels, woodpeckers and, in case of open fronted boxes, members of the crow family. As predators mainly hunt early in the morning, most people are unaware of their presence. A metal plate fixed around the entrance hole may deter woodpeckers and squirrels, while barbed wired, gorse or rose clippings above and below the box will give some protection against most mammals, such as cats. Various commercially available deterrents may also help reduce predation.
  • Insects and nestboxes - Bees, wasps or earwigs will, on occasions, take over nestboxes and there is little one can do to prevent it - apart from using insect sprays. As many of the insects are useful food for birds, it is best to leave them alone. Insects often move in after birds have finished nesting. Any young found dead are likely to have died of other natural causes. It is not unusual for the same type of insect to return to the box in subsequent years. Leave that box in situ and put up another one a few feet away. It is rare for both to be lost to insect invasion.
Curious behaviour at boxes
  • Putting a nestbox up may enable you to watch some fascinating bird behaviour up close. Here are a few things to look out for.
  • Tits are regularly seen hammering away at the entrance hole of a nestbox. This is probably a form of display by the male, rather than an attempt to enlarge the hole. Later, the female will also peck vigorously: natural holes may have all the surrounding bark chipped away. This may help her to judge how soft the wood is and whether the hole will provide a safe, predator-proof home in which to raise her brood. Blue and great tits will also hammer at the inside of a box or nest hole, perhaps as a form of display.
  • Nuthatches leave tell-tale signs of their residence in a nestbox. They peck at the entrance hole, deliberately enlarging it. They then plaster the edges of the hole with mud, making sure the hole a perfect fit for their bodies.
  • Pied flycatchers are fast nest builders. They have been known to take over a nestbox in use by another bird, and build their own nest and lay eggs on top of a fresh clutch - or even live chicks - within days.
  • Many birds roost in nestboxes, especially during a cold winter night. These roosts are frequently communal with the birds packing together for extra warmth. The record number of birds found in one box is 61 wrens!
Choosing a nestbox
  • There are many different nestboxes available to buy. Choosing a good quality product is very important, as it will have an influence on whether the box gets used and whether it's safe for birds.
  • RSPB nestboxes are made from sustainable, durable FSC timber, so they're safe for birds and have really good insulation properties, making them warm in winter and cool in summer. We carefully design our nestboxes to have the correct dimensions and ventilation that birds need, and we only use non-toxic preservatives. Our nestboxes don't have perches or decorations that predators could cling to and threaten the birds inside. Buy an RSPB nest box and you know you're buying quality - for you and for your garden birds.
  • The size of the entry hole on your nestbox is another important factor. A 25 mm entry hole is best suited for smaller birds, such as blue tit, coal tit and marsh tit. A 32 mm entry hole is suitable for birds like great tit, tree sparrow, pied flycatcher, house sparrow, nuthatch and lesser spotted woodpecker.
  • 32 mm entry holes can, if you wish, be protected from predators with a 32 mm nestbox plate, or reduced to a smaller size using a 25 mm nestbox plate.
  • Protecting your nestbox - If you do want to protect your nestbox further, use a water-based preservative (preferably one that complies with standard EN71 part 3 as safe for children's toys). Such paint/preservative types are clearly marked on the container, and are available from DIY stores and hardware shops. Preservatives should only be applied to the outside of the box. Apply in the winter, when there is a low likelihood of occupancy. This will allow time for any remaining volatile components to evaporate.