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Nest Boxes: More than Just Birdhouses

What birdhouses can do for birds—and people

biologist Steve Barlow checks a nest box in Florida's Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
Biologist Steve Barlow checks a nest box for Prothonotary Warblers in Florida?s Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo by John C. Jones

What can a nest box do for birds? The obvious answer is that it can provide a place for birds to nest. In some cases, nest boxes can even support local populations of cavity-nesting birds. For example, the core Eastern Bluebird breeding population for the entire province of Ontario, Canada, is found in and around Don Will?s bluebird trail with 407 songbird boxes in Caledonia, Ontario. Don?s trail exemplifies the role that nest boxes can make in helping breeding bird populations.

Though it might not seem as obvious, nest boxes also do a lot for people. I frequently hear from nest-box monitors who are awed by their encounters with nesting birds and share this gift with their children, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors. At a minimum, nest boxes provide a window into the natural world and the cycle of life and foster a desire to share this experience with others. Even more, they engage people in conservation, science, art, and community involvement.

For the past 10 years, Andy Fondrk and Dan Best have provided Metamucil jars for Prothonotary Warblers to nest in along the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. In 2004, 6 pairs nested in jars and one pair nested in a natural cavity.

Photo by Dan Best

Consider Don McCartney of Bend, Oregon, a longtime participant in The Birdhouse Network. Since his retirement, Don has been building and installing nest boxes to bolster declining populations of American Kestrels on land owned by the local electric company. Don and Central Electric have placed dozens of nest boxes on poles in areas where the rodent population has recently exploded. The effort is still in its infancy, but each year increasing numbers of kestrels have fledged. Other landowners have also cooperated in Don?s nest-box programs. With help from his wife, Carol, and the local community, the kestrels are also banded to study their movements and migrations.

recycled birdhouses
Boys from Brown?s Foster Home in Gardiner, Maine, use recycled materials to build one-of-a-kind birdhouses, some decorative and others for birds. The boxes provide a small income for the boys, and a way to communicate through art.*

Another story about what birdhouses can do for people comes from Brown?s Foster Home, a long-term residential facility in Gardiner, Maine, for teenage boys with behavioral disabilities such as autism. The boys use recycled materials of all kinds—from barn siding to antique furniture—to build one-of-a-kind birdhouses. Many have been on display at the Portland Museum of Art and other Maine venues. Teacher Mark Pelletier estimates that more than 2,300 birdhouses have been sold during the last seven years, providing a small income for the boys, but more importantly, giving them a way to communicate through art and building their self-confidence.

The “hands-on” aspect of building boxes may be the reason some teachers begin monitoring nest boxes with their students. Tammie Sanders, a teacher in Princeton, Kentucky, holds birdhouse-building workshops for students and parents. The excitement generated by the workshops gets the school and local community interested and involved in placing nest boxes around the schoolyard and incorporating a birdhouse trail on the school grounds.

Karen Vitek of Poughkeepsie, New York, uses nest-box monitoring to facilitate science inquiry in the classroom. Working in small groups, students research the stages in birds? life cycles, monitor birdhouses at school, and use a digital video camera to produce movie documentaries. Other nest-box enthusiasts mentor youth for school science clubs and for Boy Scouts earning merit badges. These are just a few examples of how nest-box monitoring can provide a rich and rewarding activity for making interdisciplinary connections with art, technology, woodworking, science, language arts, and even history.

Nest-box monitoring has also proven to be a valuable tool for data collection. During the last 8 nesting seasons, citizen scientists across North America have collected nearly 50,000 nesting records of breeding birds for The Birdhouse Network. These records will be added to some 300,000 records from the Nest Record Card Program that were collected beginning in the 1960s. Because birds are considered bio-indicators of environmental quality, these long-term and widely distributed data sets can be used to address issues of global importance such as climate change, environmental contamination, and habitat fragmentation.

Even for those with little or no access to nest boxes, the technology of the Nest Box Cams can bring people closer to nature and enhance their appreciation of it. We estimate that since 1999, more than one million people have visited the Nest Box Cam. Many of these people are in cities and offices, far away from natural areas. Many share the sentiment of a Nest Box Cam visitor from Connecticut who wrote, “Everybody at my place of employment is enthralled with the nest cams. We click on several times each day to keep updated on the progress of the nests and their inhabitants. Throughout the day at work it can be heard, ?What?s happening with the birds?? and everybody knows exactly what the question is in reference to. Thank you so much for bringing this piece of wildlife study into our work day!”

Boy Scout Stephen Riche created a bluebird trail
Stephen Riche from Flemington, New Jersey, created a bluebird trail monitored by Boy Scouts and other volunteers.

Photo by Bruce Riche

People engaged in nest-box monitoring have demonstrated the many facets of what it has to offer. What begins as a spring and summer hobby may grow into a community-based outreach program, a schoolyard habitat restoration project, a nest-box manufacturing company, a concerted conservation effort, and a desire to inquire about the world around us. Nest-box monitors discover the great rewards of regularly checking nest boxes and share a common goal of being stewards of their environment. We applaud everyone who carries out this work on scales both large and small. Thanks to all of the dedicated nest-box monitors who have proven that a nest box is much more than just a birdhouse.

* Photos reprinted with permission from Recycled Birdhuses,

Tina Phillips is project leader of The Birdhouse Network.


For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Laura Erickson, editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, NY, 14850. Phone: (607) 254-1114. email:

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