From the Undergrowth: Help birds make a nest with a box

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National Nest Box Week, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), took place from February 14 to 21.

It has been running for over 15 years but the BTO may not be as familiar to the general reader as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds (RSPB).

The two organisations co-operate with each other but have different roles, though both have the well-being of birds and the natural environment at heart.

The BTO does research, runs national bird surveys, produces scientific books and atlases of bird distribution. Many university students of ornithology aspire to work for the trust for their professional career.

The RSPB has scientists among its full-time staff, but its emphasis is on creating and running reserves on which birds and all the other kinds of wildlife and plants can thrive.

Nest Box Week is not the only time you can put boxes up. I was once putting up some up around a school, a bit late in the spring. As I nailed one on a tree I heard the sound of blue tits. A pair were taking up ownership of the previous one I had just nailed up. They were cleaning out the shavings which had dropped inside when I drilled the hole with my brace-and-bit drill.

Blue tits and great tits are the two species which most often find perfect homes around our gardens, but about 60 species of birds will nest in boxes, from treecreepers, to nuthatches, robins, wrens and redstarts. Even owls of various types can sometimes be tempted to use boxes, but a word of caution; a famous photographer, Eric Hosking, lost an eye to a tawny owl he was trying to photograph at the nest.

House sparrows are a much scarcer species than they used to be, and they seem to like a terrace box of three or more compartments joined together, each with a separate hole. I’ve heard of one of these being successful in attracting sparrows at Colden Junior School.

Tree Sparrows also like a box on a tree or in a thick bush, but these are known only at the far eastern end of Calderdale, in one small area near Clifton.

This name above is often confused with Hedge Sparrow, but to save confusion, this was re-named Dunnock some time ago. Its resemblance to a sparrow is only slight if you look carefully. It is one of the commonest songbirds in the garden, nesting in thick hedges like privet, not in boxes, and laying exquisite unspotted turquoise eggs.

One of the reasons the BTO encourages people to put up nest boxes is to maybe start people on the habit of recording nests. For this purpose the box will need to be openable. The sitting bird won’t take flight if you give it a warning by tapping the box gently, and it will forget it has been looked at. When you get a look at the eggs or young the BTO nest record card gives you spaces to fill in the numbers and the stages of growth.

It was a surprise to me that even some ducks like a box to nest in. This is because on the forested river banks where they used to live they found safe nesting places in holes and crevices in trees.

The Goldeneye, a winter visitor to our Pennine Reservoirs, is one of these. Another that has become more common, even on the canal, is the Goosander; the male a big white bird with a black head. An introduced duck from China, the Mandarin (pictured), also likes a box. The drake is one of the most splendid of birds, and there has recently been one on the canal at Littleborough at the top of North Street (with thanks to I.C). This duck has recently been the victim of China’s rapid industrialisation, and there are now more living in Europe than in its original homeland.

The Goldeneye has only nested in boxes in Scotland, but Goosanders nest fairly often in natural sites in Calderdale, and I have heard of one brood of Mandarin ducklings with their mother on the River Ryburn at Ripponden. This little duck has also been seen among the Mallards on the Elfin Brook near the Shoulder of Mutton pub at the bottom of Cragg Vale.