Last weekend I noticed a Carolina chickadee gathering nesting material and then heading toward my bluebird box. A bit later I checked the interior of the box, expecting to see the telltale signs of a chickadee nest: a thick, mossy base with a cup lined with animal hair. Instead I found the box stuffed with pine needles, the sure sign that an Eastern bluebird had gotten there first. I checked the box after dark a few days later and saw a chickadee sitting atop the pine needles.
I’m assuming the Carolina chickadees won out over the Eastern bluebirds.
This illustrates that despite the proliferation of folks who now feed and attract birds to their yards, there is still a shortage of suitable nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds in urban areas. There are primary cavity nesters – those species like the woodpeckers that make their own cavities – and the secondary cavity nesters that move in after the woodpeckers have moved on. These secondary nesters can’t excavate their own home, so they are dependent on woodpeckers and folks who erect bird boxes for their nesting sites.
There would be more natural sites for these birds if every tree that dies or develops hollow cavities was allowed to stay standing. Understandably, the dead trees are often quickly removed from urban areas.
In residential neighborhoods there are about 10 native species that might use a nest box if provided. Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, brown-headed nuthatch, house wren, Carolina wren, great-crested flycatcher, Eastern bluebird, barred owl and Eastern screech-owl all could potentially use an appropriate box. In more rural settings, American kestrels, barn owls, tree swallows, wood ducks and purple martins could use appropriate housing if provided.
I encourage you to provide a nest box in your yard to help alleviate the cavity shortage. It is not too late to put one up, though nesting has started for some species. Many have multiple nestings in a year. Make sure to pick a species that you want to attract so you can provide the entrance hole specifications for that species.
If you enjoy watching wildlife, an active nest box will provide great opportunities to observe nest building, feeding of young, fledging of young and post-fledging activity.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com