Spring is lurking around the corner which means just one thing - it's time for a bout of nest boxing. Liam Creedon reports.
At this time of year, thoughts traditionally, and often reluctantly, drift towards the burden of spring cleaning.
For the overzealous this may extend to a thorough and relentless house-scrubbing. But for the birds that call our gardens home, the luxury of a spot of light dusting is not an option. For them, spring is the time for industrial-scale renovations or even moving home entirely.
Over the next few weeks, the dawn chorus, which for the grey months of winter has been little more than a faint, wistful murmur, will slowly build to a glorious and deafening crescendo.
The serious business of defending a territory, finding a mate and building a nest is already under way.
And we can play our part in easing the scramble to get on to the avian equivalent of the housing ladder.
The simple act of putting up a nest box in early spring not only allows us to bask in the warm glow of environmental benevolence, but more selfishly, perhaps, offers front-row seats to the kind of entertainment Simon Cowell could only dream of inflicting upon us.
Like EastEnders mixed with The Godfather, with a little bit of The Only Way Is Essex thrown in for good measure, nest box drama has everything – from sibling rivalry, uncontrolled adultery, obsessive preening to even the odd spot of cannibalism.
We can watch this drama unfold from the comfort of our sitting-rooms as parents battle to find food for chicks, fend off the envious advances of the local blue tits and keep an eye out for the local and generally psychopathic sparrowhawks.
Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw – a lot of chicks simply don’t make it, and some owlets even eat their weaker brethren.
We seem to have been putting up nest boxes since time immemorial, but this is not the case.
In fact, the trend of providing a box for birds to raise their chicks is a relatively recent phenomenon and has rather dubious origins.
Bird boxes were originally put up by the Dutch in medieval times, though they were driven, not by birding bonhomie, but by empty stomachs – sparrows, starlings and other species were trapped inside the boxes and harvested for the pot.
As ever, it was an eccentric Victorian who came to the rescue.
Charles “Squire” Waterton was an amateur naturalist and explorer extraordinaire, reportedly in the habit of jumping from his estate buildings just to check if he could fly.
More importantly, the squire loved his birds and is credited as the first person to put up a nest box solely for study at his country pile in Yorkshire.
Fast-forward around 200 years and the sight of gardens adorned with nest boxes has become ubiquitous across the length and breadth of the UK.
But apart from perking up the patio, just why are nest boxes so important?
Richard James, from the RSPB’s wildlife inquiries team, explains: “Nest boxes help to boost the number of nest sites available for a wide range of species.
“Over 60 species have been known to use nest boxes. They can be particularly useful for declining species such as swifts, starlings and house sparrows that may be struggling to find suitable sites.”
It’s not just sparrows that rely on nest boxes. Tawny owls, kestrels and woodpeckers are among a wide range of more unusual species that can be attracted, if you put up the right kind of box.
And these boxes are not just for the birds. If you really want to add a bit of wild vigour to the neighbourhood, bat and hedgehog boxes are now readily available.
Mini-beasts shouldn’t be overlooked either. Ladybirds and other beetles can all be provided with a home with relative ease.
The ideal time to put up and repair your boxes is in the autumn, when breeding is over and done with, but birds will readily use a box put up in late winter or early spring.
James adds: “It is important to clean nest boxes out at the end of each breeding season in preparation for the following spring.
“Old nests should be removed and boiling water poured over the inside will kill off any parasites that might be lurking in there.
“We recommend this is done in the autumn. Any unhatched eggs in the box can only be removed legally between August and January – and must then be disposed of.”
So, if you’re not overly enthusiastic about the merits of spring cleaning but still want to do your bit, box clever and put up a nest box!