Chicks calling for food with their fully open beaks at their nest
Photo by Dawna VanOverschelde, SD

Placing a nest box (sometimes called a birdhouse) or nesting structure in your neighborhood is a great way to attract birds.

Mourning Dove next to its nest at a window in urban space
photo © JacobGriffin, IL

Nesting structures and baskets

To attract birds that don’t nest in cavities you might consider providing a nesting structure. For American Robins and Barn Swallows you can install a nesting shelf and provide a source of mud nearby because both types of birds will use mud to build their nests. You can find a design for one of these shelves and help American Robins and Barn Swallows in your neighborhood here.

Mourning Dove nesting on a plant pot
photo © Jacqueline Litte
If you like the relaxing calls of Mourning Doves, you can alternatively use an open box or basket to help them to build a nest in the crotch of a tree in your neighborhood. If you are not that familiar with their nests dimensions’ requirements, you can start with a standard nest box and remove one of its panels, or use a nest basket. Place it in the crotch of a tree and be sure it has good cover. You can also visit a great site to get some more advice about shelter for Mourning Doves here.

Mallards also like to nest on nest baskets but under a completely different setting! If you would like to learn how to build and install nest baskets for mallards in your neighborhood, you can visit this wonderful site here.

Cavity nesting species such as Chickadees, Wrens, Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, and many other birds readily use artificial nest boxes. Invasive species such as House Sparrows and European Starlings also use nest boxes, which can be a danger for the native bird species when competing for nesting sites. But first, what is a good nest box, how is it built, and where is it placed?

Carolina Wrens at the entrance of a nest box
photo © Theodore-Bering, OH

What is a good nest box?

Many bird species that nest in tree cavities will readily lay their eggs and raise their young in a nest box — an enclosed box with an entrance hole on one side. It is often referred to as a birdhouse. People often mount nest boxes on tree trunks, fences, or poles. Usually the lid or the side of the box can be lifted, allowing you to check what’s inside and monitor the progress of the nesting attempt. Untreated wood is best, and the boxes should have proper ventilation holes, sloped roofs, rough interior walls, and drainage holes.

Why should I put up a nest box?

Backyards, parks, and other areas may have suitable habitat for cavity-nesting birds, but limited natural cavities where they can nest. A nest box provides a place where these birds can safely lay eggs and raise their young. If birds choose your box, you’ll have the opportunity to see their family-life up close and to know that you’ve helped a new generation of birds.

How do I choose a nest box?

Nest for plataform on roof of nest box
photo © Camille Agan, MI
You can purchase a nest box intended for birds (not merely decorative) or build one. The size of the box and the entrance hole will vary depending on which species you are trying to attract. For tips about nest box features, purchasing or building a box, placing it, and protecting it from predators, visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch web site.

What birds use nest boxes?

At least 46 North American birds are known to use nest boxes, including ducks (e.g., Wood Duck, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser), birds of prey (e.g., Barn Owl, American Kestrel), songbirds (e.g., bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, Prothonotary Warbler) and woodpeckers (e.g., Northern Flicker).

House Sparrow face at the entrance of its nest box
photo © Andrea Berrow, CANADA
Visit Nestwatch to learn how to monitor nest boxes properly. Monitoring the nest boxes will help you make sure that House Sparrows and European Starlings are not using the boxes and competing with native species. These common urban species are known to destroy nests and eggs and kill nestlings and adults of native cavity-nesting species while taking over a nest site. To learn more about controlling non-native species at nest boxes, please visit this page.

What does it mean to monitor a nest box?

To monitor a nest box, you periodically check to see what species is using the box and record how many eggs or young are in the nest. If nest boxes are soiled, remove old nests and clean them with a mild bleach solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) at the end of the breeding season.

Carolina Wren collecting materials for building its nest
photo © Theodore-Bering, OH

Should I send my observations to the Lab of Ornithology?

Yes! If you have a nest box, please visit NestWatch to find out how you can monitor it, record the data, and share your findings with scientists. Researchers will use the information to learn more about the breeding success of cavity-nesting birds.

For “bird bios” of cavity-nesting species and more information about nest boxes, please visit NestWatch.