Your guide to buying a nest box

Homes for wildlife, in the garden at The Lodge

By putting up a nest box on your home or in your garden you are inviting birds to come and share your world. How great is that! But with so many nest boxes now in the market, which box should you buy? Here’s our top tips…

Homes for wildlife, in the garden at The Lodge

The basics:

Buy one which is good for our planet.

Try and choose a box made out of wood from a sustainable source, if they have the FSC timber mark on then you know you’re on to a winner.

No need for pesky decorations

The birds don’t really care for ornamentals. The simple boxes are usually best as they provide fewer things for predators to cling onto. For example, for our smaller birds try to avoid ones with perches outside the door and for most styles of box make sure the hole isn’t too close to the bottom of the box, to keep the chicks safe.

Pick one that is easy to clean

It is a good idea to clean nest boxes in autumn after the birds have finished raising their young. This is made a much easier job if you buy a box which is easy to open, such as with a hatch which unscrews. For more on cleaning next boxes, click here.

Before you buy, check you have the ideal spot for the nest box you want.

Different birds like to nest in different places. Some like to be high under the eaves of a house or in a tall mature tree, while others are less picky as long it is a quiet spot, away from danger. Have a quick look around your garden or outdoor space before you buy to make sure you have the ideal spot for the type of nest box you want, and that it can be accessed easily and safely.

The different styles of box:

Once you have a list of possible places to put a nest box, you can now start looking at the different styles which attract different types of bird. 

The classic nest box

The most common type of nest box which attracts a variety of garden birds.  Check the size of the hole as this makes all the difference to the type of bird who will use it. For blue tits, coal tits and marsh tits, a 25mm hole is ideal, while great tits, tree sparrow, pied flycatcher and house sparrow all prefer a bigger 32mm hole. If you’re lucky you may even get a lesser spotted woodpecker or a nuthatch moving in to raise their young.

Ideal locations: Boxes for tits and sparrows should be two to four metres up a tree or wall. They should be north or east facing or under cover to avoid direct sunlight and the wettest winds. There should also be a clear flight path to and from the nest.  
Sparrows prefer to nest together, so if you have space consider putting a number up in a row. It is best to avoid places where house martins usually nest. For woodpeckers, the best place is a tree, placed 3-5m high and with a clear flight path.  

Terrace box

A box designed for multiple families to move into! It is perfect if you want to attract sparrows who like to nest with neighbours. 

Ideal locations: The best place is on a north or east facing wall, 2m or higher, up under the eaves. As with the classic box, they also need a clear flight path to and from the box.  

The starling box

Similar to the classic next box, but bigger! It is built specifically for starlings who need a slightly bigger next box , look for one about 31cm high with a depth and width of 18cm. The entry hole should also bigger, around 45mm.

Ideal locations: Starlings like similar nesting locations to sparrows, see details in the classic nest box information above.

Open fronted next box

This looks like a classic nest box but instead of hole it has a larger open front. It is the preferred style for birds such as robins, wrens, pied wagtails and spotted flycatchers.  The different species like slightly different styles – for example robins or pied wagtails like a 100mm high open front, wrens like a 140mm high front panel and spotted flycatchers prefer a low 60 mm front to the box.

Ideal locations: For wrens and robins, the nest box needs to be placed below 2m, but well-hidden vegetation. For spotted flycatchers, the box needs to be placed 2-4m high, sheltered in vegetation but with a clear outlook. Again north or north east facing is best, to avoid strong sunlight and the wettest winds.  

Tree nesters

As the name suggests, these nesters are specially designed for birds who like to nest in thick vegetation or in a tree.  They are made of brushwood, which is like the natural materials species such as tree creepers, goldcrests, marsh tits and willow tits use to build nests, as well as wrens and robins. They can be fixed to trees or in dense vegetation using twine or garden wire.

Ideal locations: For the ideal spot for robin and wrens see the open fronted box advice. For tree creepers, marsh tits and willow tits it best for the nester to be fixed to the trunk of a mature trees, with goldcrests preferring coniferous trees.

Camera nest boxes

For those wanting to create their very own nature documentaries, pick a nest box fitted with a camera. The cameras are improving all the time, with many now offering high-definition video and audio so you can see and hear the chicks growing up in stunning detail. Some even offer night vision to see the birds asleep and /or can record when there is movement which you can then watch at a time that suits you.
It is best to buy a box and camera together, as the boxes usually come with special roof window to allow extra light in. It also ensures the camera can be easily fitted in the right place to maximise the viewing angle.
The images are sent by the camera to the comfort of your home in different ways. The most common ways now are via a long cable running straight from the box to your computer, or over a Wi-Fi connection for you and your family and friends to watch anywhere in the world. Both have their merits when it comes to practicality and affordability.
Most nest box and camera packages are based on the classic nest box design, featured above, so are ideal for tits and sparrows.

Ideal locations: Cameras need to be placed in a position where they can get a source of power, whether this is via the ethernet cable or plugging into the mains.  If you’re going for the Wi-Fi option, you also have to make sure the camera is not hidden away so much that it limits the range. 

Hints and Tips:

  • Battery cameras are not recommended as changing or charging the batteries would mean disturbing the nest. 
  • Cameras must not be installed in a box with an active nest (from the moment the first nesting material is laid, right up until the chicks fledge).  
  • They should only be installed, when the box is first put up,  before the breeding season begins or once certain there is no longer any breeding activity or young in the box (they may get roosting activity over winter) 

Swift Boxes and bricks

Swifts have declined dramatically in recent years, partly because of a reduction in suitable nest sites. If you want to help, look for a specifically designed swift box which can be positioned high up under the eaves of your house. The box itself should have a sloping roof to make it hard for predators to gain purchase and have an entry hole of around 28x65mm, to keep starlings out. Boxes with an internal nest cup can increase the chances of use.
If you are having major renovation works done, you can use a special 'swift brick'. These fit like a regular brick into the outside of your house or outbuilding but should only be fitted by a qualified builder.

Ideal locations: Swifts like to be up high, so you need a vertical wall at least 5m (15 feet) with an unobstructed flight path. The best place is right beneath the eaves, but this is not essential. The boxes or bricks can also face any direction from northeast though south to northwest. 

House martin cups

House martins are also in real trouble, with significant declines in the last few years. We can help by putting up nest cups, which use terracotta or a similar material to mimic the mud nests the house martins naturally build. They need to be fitted as close to the eaves of your house as possible, but some come with a removable roof, to be used if there is a gap.

Ideal locations: House martin nests should be sited high on the wall directly under the eaves of a house, preferably out of direct sunlight and rain. North or east facing walls are ideal. It is important that the nest is situated high enough for the birds to launch and fly away comfortably. If you have several house martin nests, then group them together for best results.

Swallow cups

Similar to the house martin cups, these are bowl shaped nests made from terracotta or something similar, recreating the mud nests swallows usually make.

Ideal locations: The big difference between swallow and house martin nests is the location, with swallows naturally being cave dwelling birds. This means it is best to site the nest high inside an external building or in a big porch with permanent access to the outside to allow feeding visits. It is important that the nest is situated high enough for the birds to launch and fly away comfortably.

Birds of prey nest boxes 

Some birds of prey will happily make use of nest boxes if they are the right size and in the right place. Barn owls for example usually nest inside farm outbuildings or large tree hollows with space for their young to exercise, so need a large box with a landing shelf and fledgling exercise area. Tawny owls and kestrels are both happy in smaller boxes, but they still weigh a considerable amount and a lot of care and effort is needed to put up a box correctly at the height required. Other factors, such as barn owls having special protected status also need to be considered.

Ideal locations: Birds of prey need space and access to an area where their prey is abundant, therefore nest boxes should only be considered if you have a large garden or a barn or outbuilding near open land.  Each species has specific requirements, with those for the tawny owl, barn owl and kestrel listed on the RSPB  shop nest box pages below.