The NHBS guide: Where to hang and how to maintain your nest box

House Sparrow Terrace FSC Nest Box
House Sparrow Terrace FSC Nest Box

With spring rapidly approaching, now is the ideal time to start thinking about nest boxes for your local birds. With this in mind we have put together some answers to the most frequently asked questions about nest boxes – covering where and when to put up your boxes, cleaning and maintenance as well as dealing with predators.

You can browse the full range of nest boxes we sell online and, if you’re keen to find out more, check out the BTO Nestbox Guide, which is packed with essential information.

When is the best time to put up nest boxes?

There really is no ‘best’ time to put up nest boxes.  By putting up boxes in the autumn you can provide much needed winter refuges for roosting birds and increase the chance of them staying and nesting there when spring comes around.  However, any box erected before the end of February stands a good chance of being occupied.  Even after February there is still a chance that they will be used; tits have been known to move in during April and house martins as late as July. Therefore, put your nest box up as soon as it is available rather than leaving it in the shed!

Where should I hang my nest box?

1B Schwegler Nest Box
1B Schwegler Nest Box

When it comes to nest boxes, the ‘where’ is much more important than the ‘when’.  Nest boxes must provide a safe, comfortable environment and protect the inhabitants from predators and the worst of the weather.  This may be difficult to achieve; a safe location out of reach of predators may also be exposed to the weather, so have a good think before you start bashing nails in.

Nest boxes can be fixed to walls, trees or buildings and different styles of boxes are available which are suitable for each.  Fixing to artificial surfaces means the growth of the tree does not have to be considered which is useful for Schwegler nest boxes which last for at least 20-25 years: a significant amount of time in the life of a small tree.  If you’re planning any building work, remember that some bird and bat boxes can also be built directly into walls and roofs.

Locating boxes out of the reach of predators can be a challenge (weasels can climb almost anything), but there are things you can do to make it harder for them.  Boxes in gardens should be located where cats cannot get to them and prickly or thorny bushes can also help to deter unwanted visitors. Some nest boxes also have anti-predator designs (e.gSchwegler’s Tree Creeper nest box).  It is best to avoid nest boxes that have a combined bird feeder and boxes should not be sited too close to the bird feeders in your garden. Visitors to the feeder may disturb the nesting birds and the feeder could attract unwanted attention from predators.

For many species the height of the box is not crucial.  However, by placing it at least several metres off the ground you can help prevent predators and human interference.  The direction of the entrance hole is also not too important but it is beneficial for there to be a clear flight path to the box.  Crucially, the box should be sheltered from the prevailing wind, rain and strong sunlight, so in most UK gardens aim for an aspect of northerly, easterly or south-easterly.  If possible, position the box with a slight downward angle to provide further protection from the rain.  Wherever you position the box, try to ensure that you can still get access to it for maintenance.  And finally, if possible, try to put it somewhere where you can see it so as to maximise your enjoyment of watching wild birds in your garden.

Is there anything else I can do to deter predators?

Entrance hole protection plate
Entrance hole protection plate

As already mentioned, location is the most important factor when trying to deter predators.  Whilst some mammals can climb walls, a blank wall is fairly inaccessible so can be a good choice.  Ensure that the box cannot be reached by a single jump from a nearby branch or the ground.

Box design can also help deter predators.  An entrance hole reinforced with a metal plate will prevent grey squirrels and some avian predators from enlarging the hole and gaining access to the nest.  Schwegler’s wood-concrete boxes are too hard for any predator to break through.  However, you can also reinforce a nest box yourself with metal protection plates or provide additional protection with prickly twigs.  Deep boxes may prevent predators reaching in and grabbing nest occupants, although some tits have been known to fill up deep boxes with copious quantities of nesting material.  If using open-fronted nest boxes, a balloon of chicken wire over the entrance can work well.  If you live in an urban area, cats are likely to be the most common predator.  Gardeners have long since used various methods to exclude these unwanted visitors, such as pellets, electronic scarers and even lion dung (available from your nearest obliging zoo), all with varying degrees of success.

How do I manage the nest box?

A well-designed nest box will only need one annual clean in the autumn. It is important not to clean out nest boxes before August as they may still be occupied.  Wait until autumn and then remove the contents, scattering them on the ground some way from the box to help prevent parasites re-infesting the nest box. Use a small brush or scraper to remove debris from the corners. Boiling water can be used to kill any parasites remaining in the box, but remember to leave the lid off for a while for it to try out. Do not wait until the winter to clean out nest boxes as birds may already be roosting in them.

How many nest boxes do I need?

House Martin Nests
House Martin Nests

The exact amount of boxes required will depend on the species and the surrounding habitat.  As a very general rule of thumb, start with ten assorted small boxes per hectare (ensure uniform spacing between boxes).  Keep adding several more boxes each season until some remain unused and hopefully you’ll hit on the correct density of boxes.  However, even if you only have space for one box it is still worthwhile, providing it is suitably located. Many UK bird species need all the additional nesting habitat they can get.

If you are interested in installing a nest box camera into one of your bird boxes, take a look at our “How to choose a nest box camera” article, for more information on choosing the model that’s right for you.

Further information about individual nest boxes, including advice on positioning, can be found alongside each nest box in our range.  If you have any other questions then please get in touch with customer services.


13 thoughts on “The NHBS guide: Where to hang and how to maintain your nest box”

  1. hi,i put up a box that is around 10″x 10″x 10″with an entrance hole around 2″dia on a shelted east facing stone house wall around 25ft high it as a overhanging roof fully water proof and very hard for any thing to get to around 8 years ago but it as never been used once by any birds i thought the entrance might be too big so i made it around 1″diameter 2 years ago but still no takers so whats the problem my garden gets loads of birds of all kinds,also 2 years ago robins nested in a nelly moser climber around 6 feet from the ground and all was ok so i made a small nest box with a small entrance hole fixed it up in the same climber but a bit higher but again still no takers? black birds/sparrows/blue tits/the occasional wren/magpies/jackdors/crows/and i have had a visit from woodpeckers a couple of times but apart from the robin no other nesting there are bats flying around at night but they dont seem to roost around my house we also used to get loads of starlings but not many over the last couple of years so as we get loads of birds why dont they use the nest boxes or the horthorn edge around the north east side of the garden,one other point my garden is not very big its around 40ft x 40ft any tips or advice will be most welcome,many thanks, s buckley.

    1. Sometimes this happens, but you may find when you clean or inspect the box in the early winter a few droppings in the bottom indicating that unbeknown to you they have used it to roost. Also, you didn’t say where you are, but if you have plenty of natural nest sites around you, or just too many natural predators in the area like hawks, squirrels, woodpeckers, or domestic pets that they might feel would not be good for boxed or landed young this may put them off a bit whether the box is in direct reach of these or not. Starlings are in severe decline due to loss of habitat, they rely on houses with eaves, as do sparrows, also on the Red List, flocks are much smaller in numbers now, sadly due to loss of habitat and ‘tidy’ houses, built with no eaves. There are also nest box designs for specific birds, and also bird homes with an ‘escape’ back door, to make birds like Robins feel more secure in nesting, Schwegler I think might still do these, and have a look at the RSPB site, generally the entrance hole and height from the base to the hole is an important factor too. All the best!

  2. I’ve just purchased 4 bird houses for my garden.
    Natural wooden bird house
    12cm x 11cm
    Made from durable plywood
    Hanging loop
    I only have an 8ft high fence all around a south facing garden.
    Can you please advise me best to keep the birds warm and safe in these houses in winter? And what best to feed them?
    Many thanks


  3. I really like that you said that it doesn’t really matter when you put up a birdhouse. As you said, whether it is winter or summer, any time is a good time for a birdhouse. I’m thinking about putting one up at my home. But, I don’t know much about building it on my own. Do you have any tips about buying one online?

  4. I found this to be a very good article. One question, I have made several bird boxes, I have also purchased straw and feathers to give the birds a helping hand in forming a nest, will partially filling the boxes with a little of each encourage them to nest or will it deter them regards Mike

  5. Having affixed the box to a tree in a suitable location, what else should I do to attract birds to use it eg put food in it or moss or twigs etc or just leave it bare ?

  6. Hello, thanks for the info but I would like a nesting box for Hoopoes with the right sized hole etc. I would need information as to how high I should fix the box.
    Any info would be welcome.
    Thanks a lot.
    P Smith (Mrs)

  7. I’d love to have a couple birdhouses placed along the trees of my backyard. It’s definitely good to know though that location is the most important factor for the bird’s safety from predators. I know there are a couple cats in my neighborhood that I don’t want getting into my birdhouses, so I’ll make sure they’re high enough up and far enough away from any nearby branches to keep the birds safe.

  8. It’s good to know that when it comes to keeping a nest box maintained and looking nice, that it only needs to be cleaned once a year in the autumn time. We have finally moved into a place with a backyard, I am wanting to install a lot of these to help create a more natural place. It’s nice to know that there are ways to help make sure that they birds will be comfortable when they come.

  9. I never knew that so many animals try to get into bird houses! I’ve always thought of them as more of a simple decor piece to put up in the yard. Now that I’m getting one of my own these tips on placement will be very useful!

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