Garden Bird Nesting Boxes – How, Where & When To Use Them

I have had bird feeders in my garden for some time now, with some pretty good results. I often wonder where the birds go to when they leave the feeders. Now I am wondering whether my back garden is a suitable place to use a bird nesting box. But when is the best time to put up a bird box and should I put anything in it?

The best time to put up a new bird box is generally late autumn into winter. You certainly want to get one up and ready for early spring (late January). Realistically, any time is good; the longer it is available the more chance birds have to find it and scope it out as a potential home. As for putting something inside a bird box, the best advice is not to add any kind of nesting material or bedding. If you are in a similar position to me, read on as I explain in more detail the answers to these questions and more…

When Is The Best Time To Put Up A Bird Box?

Bird box, nesting box, nest box… call it what you will (I will be using each term throughout), they all provide a common function – a safe place for small birds to build a nest and raise their chicks. Like many other animals, birds follow specific annual patterns through the seasons when it comes to mating, nesting and laying eggs. Knowing something about this can help us decide when is best to put up a bird box.

When Do Birds Start Looking For Nests?

Most common garden birds start thinking about nest building in the spring. Some are earlier, such as the long tail tit, nesting as early as February. Others, like the goldfinch and blue tit don’t lay eggs until late April or May.

The blue tit one of the few small birds that are more likely use a bird box. Although they don’t lay eggs until April or May, they begin nest site selection earlier in the year. I am writing this post in early April and back in late February and early March I watched blue tits investigating my neighbour’s nesting box on the side of her house.

Some birds will use a bird box in the Winter to roost. A bird box provides a safe, warm and dry place for a small bird. So, when thinking about the best time for putting up a bird box, no time is a bad time but for nesting the new year is ideal.

It can, however, take time for birds to be comfortable with any new additional to their environment. It can be hit and miss from year to year. Hopefully the information in this post will help you to get it right.

Should I Put Anything In My Bird Box?

Birds prefer natural wood in a bird box; it mimics their natural surroundings of trees and hedgerows. That doesn’t mean put bits of wood inside, I just mean that a wooden bird box will provide familiarity.

Despite our best intentions to make a bird’s new home as comfortable as possible, it is generally suggested that putting nesting material in a bird box is not such a good idea. Birds can be quite particular when it comes to nest building materials. If a bird takes up residence in your bird box and finds anything in there they are likely to throw it out and find their own, preferred nesting material.

The best thing to do is to is leave suitable material near to the nest.

What Nesting Material Do Garden Birds Like?

Toy stuffing – I have read elsewhere that an old, cut open stuffed toy nailed to the fence or nearby tree is a good idea. Birds will make good use of the stuffing to insulate their nest.

Pet hair – Our Labrador dog shed his hair like nothing I have seen before! Last year I saw a blue tit visiting the area where I brushed the dog to collect clumps of his hair. He was perched on the feeder sporting a very fine white moustache!

Twine or string – short lengths of twine can be useful to a bird building a nest. They are good weavers and will use it to thread into the structure.

Wood shavings – sawdust and shavings from any woodwork projects or other pet bedding can provide good insulation for a birds nest.

Mud – I have been watching a blackbird building her nest in the garden this week. I have not been too close but I can see she has used soft mud to line some of the nest. Consider leaving muddy area near to the nesting box.

Birds are very clever and resourceful. They have been surviving for many years without our direct help, so they will find what they need. It is fun, though, watching them take the things you leave out.

Which Direction Should A Bird Nesting Box Face?

This is quite important. A nesting box should be sited so it is facing somewhere towards the north east. Anywhere between north and east is best. Here is why – the sun shines from the south and prolonged sunlight bearing down on a nesting box will make it feel like an oven inside. Birds will find it way too hot and unbearable to use.

It is not just direct sunlight birds will want to avoid while nesting, strong winds and heavy rain are also undesirable at a nesting box site. Some locations might offer permanent shelter from the elements and it may be suitable to place a bird box there, regardless of orientation.

Should I Remove The Old Nest From A Bird Box?

It is generally advised that you clean out any bird boxes you have provided at the end of the year. The main reason is cleanliness and disease. Although the parents of young nestlings will do their best to clear away mess and waste from the nest, there will always be bacteria and parasites present.

Be sure that the bird box has been vacated before you go in. Waiting until after August will be a good bet, as many birds will continue to nest until the end of summer. If you have a nest cam you will know, just show caution if not.

Cleaning the bird box is easy enough. Just tip the contents away, making sure any mites and parasites aren’t close enough to re-infest the box. Then use a brush or something suitable to scrap out any debris that is left.

Use boiling water to kill any remaining nasties then leave it to dry. Leave the lid or base off for a while to help this. It is as simple as that – no set rules, just give it a clean without chemicals and replace the bird box when done.

Just make sure you don’t leave it too late. If you do this too close to autumn and winter, you might find a bird is already roosting in the box.

Can You Put Bird Boxes Near Each Other?

If you have a small garden you may be limited to just one bird box. Garden birds can be fiercely territorial, especially the robin and usually blue tits. Having researched this, the best distance between nest boxes is something like 20 – 25 metres.

Studies have shown that great tits prefer to nest away from other tits. Although the study was conducted a number of years ago, the same results exist today. The reoccurring distance between nest boxes, occupied by the great tit was 40 – 50 metres. It showed that nest boxes as close as 20 metres from the nearest neighbour were less likely to be occupied.

Of course it is possible, depending on food sources and location, that our garden birds will choose to tolerate one another and happily occupy boxes closer to one another in the same small garden. Try it and let me know.

How To Attract Birds To A Nest Box

Now we know a bit more about when to put up a nest box and what we can do to help the bird get started. But when the box is up, how can we attract birds to it?

We can’t really attach signs and colourful adornments to get birds to nest in our box. We just have to be deliberate in how we position it. The following will make it more likely that a bird will choose a nesting box in which to build their nest.

The Right Height

Position a nest box at a height according to the type of bird you are looking to attract. For example, site your open fronted nest box around 1-2 metres up for robins. Tits prefer a higher nest box 2 – 4 metres high.

Direction Is Important

The best and safest direction to face your nesting box is to the north east. Somewhere between in north and east is fine. The reason for this is to protect the birds from wind, driving rain and direct sunlight.

A Clear Route In

Give the birds a clear, unobstructed flight path to the box. Avoid clutter around the entrance so they can have easy and quick access to the nest. An exception could be a robin’s nest box; they prefer the cover of natural foliage around their nesting boxes.

Proximity To Other Nest Boxes

Birds are territorial. As I already mentioned above, it is not a good idea to site multiple nesting boxes too close to one another. Some birds are happy to live in colonies, such as sparrows and starlings. Most tits and robins will need their space. If you have a small to medium size garden, start with one nesting box.

Away From Feeders

It is normally a good idea to site a nesting box away from bird feeders. High levels of activity nearby from other birds could become a distraction and may even result in the nest being abandoned.


Putting a bird box up, or nesting box, can be fun. The anticipation of a bird making their home in your bird box is so exciting. This may be short lived if you don’t do this right.

The nesting box must be the correct height for the birds that will use it. It needs to face the right way. Don’t put anything in your bird box (birds are clever an resourceful enough to build their own nest). Don’t put nesting boxes too close to each other. Finally, when the birds have left the nest give it a clean ready for the next inhabitants.