How to Clear Out a Nest Box
As the winter approaches, should you do anything about the nest boxes you put up last spring? Is it best to leave them alone? Or should you give them a good old clear out ready for new inhabitants next year?
Many of us will have put up nest boxes around our gardens last springtime with the hope of attracting local birds to brood and bring up the next generation of avian visitors to our gardens. It is an absolute delight and incredibly satisfying to watch blue tits, robins and sparrows occupying a nest box and bringing food to the new family throughout the spring.
Once we are safely through the breeding season, the early winter months of November and December are a great time to empty your nest boxes of last year’s nesting material. It’s quite a fascinating job to do in the garden and great for children to be part of, to help them understand the life cycle of wildlife, see the beauty of nest building, and encourage a bond with their garden birds. Watch as Simon clears out the nest boxes around his garden:
How to access the inside of a nest box
All of our hole nesting boxes, which are wooden, can be accessed via a small door on the side or around the back of the box. You will need to remove the nest box from the wall first, open the door and pull the nesting material out. We would advise discarding the material in your green bin, rather than a compost heap, to reduce the chance of spreading any bacteria or fleas to other wildlife. All of our brushwood nesters are easy to access through the main nest opening. If you have the Tree Nest Pouch then this has a door on the reverse. Again, all you need to do is pull out the nesting material with your hands.
Top tips for clearing out a nest box:
- Always wear gloves - Nesting material can contain fleas and other parasites, so it’s best to always wear a pair of gardening gloves and long sleeves when clearing them out.
- Hot soapy water works best - Try to use very hot water and some eco-friendly washing up liquid if you are going to clean out the nest box properly. It’s not necessary to do this, unless you noticed a lot of parasitic activity inside.
- Allow it to dry thoroughly - If you do wash out the nest box, ensure it is thoroughly dry before you put it back out in your garden.
When shouldn’t I clear out a nest box?
Avoid cleaning out your nest boxes between 1st February and the 31st August because the chances of you disturbing an active nest are so much higher then. It's worth noting as well that if you do find any unhatched eggs in a nest box outside of this time period, you are only permitted to remove them between September and the end of January. You are not allowed to keep these unhatched eggs, you must throw them away.
Should I put the nest box back up straight away?
Garden birds will use nest boxes outside of the breeding season. A nest box can offer a safe and dry roosting spot for many species of bird to help them stay warm during the cold winter months. If you clear out your nest boxes, this won’t prevent birds from roosting and, as Simon says, “remember birds do carry some parasites like fleas and lice and the eggs of those parasites could be down in the nest material so by clearing them out you’re giving the birds who may occupy the nest box from now on, a fighting chanced of going in with fewer parasites.”
What if I find a natural nest?
You can remove natural bird nests outside of the breeding season and as long as they are not active nest sites. However, it is not necessary to do this and actually other wildlife like the dormouse and bumblebees have been known to use old nests, so it can be beneficial to simply leave them. We also think it’s best to refrain from cutting back hedges and hedgerows if you can, to encourage birds firstly to roost amongst them with the comfort of a lot of cover around them, and secondly encourage them to nest inside come the spring.
When do garden birds start prospecting for nest sites?
It is often thought that many of our garden bird species will start looking for a nesting site around early February. But actually, they can be prospecting as early as December. That’s why there’s never a bad time to put up a nest box. By putting your nest boxes up early, you’re not only offering your garden birds a chance to encourage fidelity with a potential nest site come spring, but you’re also offering a comfortable roosting spot for the winter.
Where to put up a nest box?
If you didn’t have any success last spring with your nest box, don’t be disheartened. It can take a while for your garden birds to known and trust a new nest box. So do give it a year or two. If you feel that you want to try it in a new position for next spring, then we always recommend facing your cavity nest boxes pointing northeast, so that they don’t get too hot come the late spring when there may be chicks inside.
Simon tends to position his cavity nesters quite low to the ground - about a metre or so high - on trees, but you could also use a fence or your house wall. “It’s easy to get to – for me. Still well protected, generally speaking, unless you have loads of cats in the neighbourhood, but frankly cats climb trees anyway. And I find it much easier to manage them.” But you can position your nest boxes higher, if you have a small garden and are worried about the area becoming too busy once the weather warms up and you and your family are using the garden much more.
When it comes to our Brushwood Nesters, Simon also positions these quite low: “The Brushwood Tree Pouch I often site very low down in hedgerows and trees and a little bit higher up for the Brushwood Robin Nester tucked away deep inside the vegetation of a hedgerow is the perfect spot.”