Placing a nest box (also called a birdhouse) in your yard or neighborhood is a great way to attract birds that normally nest in woodpecker holes or other cavities. Participants in NestWatch, a citizen-science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, monitor bird nests in their nest boxes (or any other place), gathering information such as the number of eggs or young in the nest. They then submit their data over the Internet to Lab scientists. Data gathered for NestWatch have been used in a great many studies, including ones examining effects of climate change on birds.
Checking a nest box. Tammie Sanders © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Which Birds Nest in Nest Boxes?
About 80 species of birds nest in cavities and are candidates for using a nest box. If a particular species does not nest in a cavity in the wild, you’re unlikely to find it using a nest box.
Many cavity-nesting species use old woodpecker holes in the wild. Some species, such as bluebirds or wrens, may nest in odd places such as the end of an open pipe. But based on research, we know that certain species are most likely to be attracted to nest boxes of a specific size and design, and many birds will have their best likelihood of raising their young successfully when their nest box is the right size and design for that species.
Take note of the following points as you plan what kind of nest box to use:
- Decide which species you would like to attract and look them up in our Bird Guide.
- Make sure the desired species is found in your part of the country and in the type of habitat your yard can offer it.
- Make sure you can place the nest box in the appropriate location. The nest box for an Eastern Screech Owl, for example, should be mounted at least 10 feet high. Our NestWatch project can help you with this.
- Do not put up a nest box unless you have the time to manage it, keeping it clean and in good repair.
- If you are providing a nest box for bluebirds or Purple Martins, which are especially vulnerable to aggressive House Sparrows and European Starlings, learn to identify these invasive competitors and manage your nest box to exclude them.
Remember that the kinds of birds you'll attract are affected by where you live and what the surrounding habitat is like. As an example, Prothonotary Warblers are beautiful cavity-nesting birds that many of us would love to have in our backyards. However, Prothonotary Warblers are birds of southeastern woodland swamps, and only people lucky enough to live in those areas are likely to find the birds using one of their nest boxes.
Nest Box Basics
Just like birds, nest boxes come in many shapes and sizes. Check with our NestWatch project for recommendations on how large a box to use and where to put it to have the best chance of attracting the species you want.
You can make your own nest boxes or purchase them ready made. Look for these design features:
- untreated wood (pine, cedar, or fir)
- overhanging, sloped roof
- rough interior walls
- recessed floor
- drainage holes
- ventilation holes
- easy access for monitoring and cleaning
- sturdy construction
- no outside perches
Maintaining Your Nest Boxes
European Starling. Len Endy © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
If you put up a nest box, please be a responsible landlord. Nest boxes should be monitored and maintained on a regular basis. Unmonitored nest boxes can easily become home to House Sparrows or European Starlings, two introduced species that aggressively compete with native birds, destroying eggs and chicks and sometimes killing adult swallows, bluebirds, and other vulnerable birds.
Visit the Lab's NestWatch web site for detailed advice about how to keep your nest boxes clean, healthy, and full of the birds you want to have around: