5 birds that love boxes — nest boxes, that is

A fledgling tufted titmouse peeks out from the nest box in which it hatched in a backyard near Benton.
A fledgling tufted titmouse peeks out from the nest box in which it hatched in a backyard near Benton.


Contributing Writer

Do you enjoy watching wild birds in your yard? Most Arkansans do, and now is a perfect time to enhance those opportunities by building and installing nest boxes around your property.

Many birds in The Natural State use nest boxes, everything from tiny chickadees to big barred owls. Our feathered friends benefit when we add boxes to our home landscape because natural nesting cavities are often in short supply. It’s important, however, to be sure we properly design each box so it will attract the birds and protect their eggs and young.

Experts at the National Wildlife Federation have said each box should have these basic features:

• Built using natural, untreated wood (pine, cedar or fir).

• Lumber for walls that is at least three quarters of an inch thick to provide insulation.

• An entrance that is the correct distance from the floor to accommodate the nest.

• An extended and sloped roof to keep the rain out.

• A recessed floor and drainage holes to keep the interior dry.

• Rough or grooved interior walls to help fledglings exit.

• Ventilation holes to allow the interior to remain cool.

• A side or top panel that opens to allow easy access for monitoring and cleaning.

• No outside perches, which aid predators and other harassing birds.

It is also important to make sure your box incorporates features preferred by the particular bird species you hope to attract. These features include the proper entrance-hole size, the box’s height above the ground when mounted and the type of habitat surrounding the box.

You can find this information through the NestWatch program of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Go to nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses, and click on “Right Bird, Right House.” Select your region (Southeast for people living in Arkansas) and the type of habitat around your home (forest, lake, town, etc.). Then you’ll see a list of birds that will use nest boxes in your area. Click again on “see this plan” for the species you’d like to attract, and you’ll find helpful tips and be able to download simple plans you can use to build a nest box at home.

To get you started, here’s information on five common Arkansas birds that will readily use properly made and mounted nest boxes.

Tufted titmouse

The tufted titmouse is a common year-round resident in woodlands and forest edges throughout The Natural State. Most Arkansans are familiar with these tiny crested birds because titmice are common at feeders stocked with sunflower seeds and suet. The primary nesting months are April and May. The cup-shaped nests, made from moss, leaves and bark strips, usually contain three to nine eggs.

Nesting habitat: Forest, town and open woodlands

Entrance-hole size: 1 1/4 inches

Box depth: 8 inches

Box width and length: 5 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches

Box placement above ground: 5 to 15 feet

Tips: Place the nest box in an area with large deciduous trees. Favorable habitats include forests, parks and suburban neighborhoods with mature trees. The entrance hole of the nest box should face away from prevailing winds. If multiple boxes are used, keep them at least 600 feet apart to avoid competition from these territorial birds.

Eastern screech-owl

About the size of a plump bobwhite, the eastern screech-owl is a common year-round resident in Arkansas, residing in open woodlands close to creeks, marshes and fields. It nests from late February to late May, depositing three to five eggs in tree cavities, old woodpecker holes and nest boxes.

Nesting habitat: Forest, town and open woodlands

Entrance-hole size: 3 inches

Box depth: 14 inches

Box width and length: 10 by 11 3/4 inches

Box placement above ground: 10 to 30 feet

Tips: Place the box under a tree branch along a woodland edge with adjacent fields or wetlands. The tree on which the box is mounted should be at least as wide as the box. Add 2 to 3 inches of wood shavings to the box. You can install a second nest box within a pair’s territory as a backup in case the first nest fails.

Purple martin

Martins are considered harbingers of spring, with migrants arriving in southern counties as early as the first week of February. They nest in colonies in nest boxes with multiple compartments or individual hollowed gourds strung close together, laying three to six pure white eggs, usually in April, May or June.

Nesting habitat: Lake or town

Entrance hole size: 2 1/8 inches

Compartment depth: 5 to 7 inches

Compartment width and length: 6 by 6 inches

Box placement above ground:10 to 15 feet

Tips: Houses painted white seem to be most attractive, but be sure there are no trees or buildings within 60 feet of the mounting pole in any direction. Keep the area under the martin house clear of brush and shrubs. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young, and keep compartments closed until the martins return in spring to reduce competition with house sparrows and starlings. Commercially available martin decoys and recordings of dawn songs can be used to attract these social birds to newly installed houses.

Wood duck

As their name suggests, wood ducks love woods, particularly deeply forested wetlands such as cypress swamps, timbered river bottoms and willow-lined creeks. Their attachment to woodlands extends even to nesting, with the young usually raised in tree cavities 20 to 50 feet above ground within a few yards of quiet, undisturbed bodies of water. The clutch of six to 16 eggs is usually laid between April and July.

Nesting habitat: Forest, lake, marsh and river

Entrance-hole size: 3 inches high by 4 inches wide

Box depth: 24 inches

Box width and length: 8 by 9 1/4 inches

Box placement above ground: 6 to 30 feet

Tips: Mount each box so it leans forward slightly to shed rain. Boxes can be installed on posts or poles in the water, at least 3 feet above the high-water mark, facing south or west.

If installing on land, choose a site within 100 feet of the water with no branches around the entrance hole. Predator guards should be installed. Place 4 inches of wood shavings on the box floor, and make sure there’s a fledgling ladder under the entrance hole (strip of 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth stapled to the inside).

Eastern bluebird

Most Arkansans are very familiar with these colorful birds of farmlands, backyards and roadsides. They may be seen in the state throughout the year, with nesting starting as early as mid-February and the last broods fledged by mid-July. Two to seven eggs are laid, and there may be as many as three broods in one season.

Nesting habitat: Grasslands and open woodlands

Entrance-hole size: 2-1/4 inches high by 1 3/8 inches wide

Box depth: 9 inches

Box width and length: 5 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches

Box placement above ground: 4 to 6 feet

Tips: Experts recommend positioning each nest box so the entrance hole faces east toward open habitat. Clean out old nests as soon as a brood fledges so the nest box can be used for a second nesting attempt. If house sparrows are a problem, try drilling a second entrance hole beside the first one (so there are two separate but identical holes on the front panel) to enable bluebirds to better defend their boxes from sparrows.

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