If You Build It, they might come: Attracting nesting House Finches
As their name implies, House Finches are associated with houses and people. In fact – when it comes to nesting – House Finches are like people in that they like to have a roof over their heads. Given that preference, you can increase the chances that House Finches will nest where you can observe them, making your participation in the House Finch Nest Survey more successful and enjoyable. In all House Finch nest searching, keep in mind that these techniques are specific to this species. Other birds are much more susceptible to disturbance and will often abandon their nest if disturbed. If you encounter another type of bird nest while searching, take care to avoid that area in the future.
House Finches will take advantage of any number of objects left out on houses, porches, barns, or garages to nest in. They nest in evergreen wreathes, hanging plants, small baskets, and on house decorations and light fixtures. To minimize the disturbance to the finches, and the mess at your doorstep, you can deliberately place such objects out of the way, or near a window where you can easily observe adults feeding and brooding young. So, for instance, you could relocate a Christmas wreath from your front door to a window away from the door after Christmas. Because of their preference for cover over and behind the nest, it helps to put up possible nesting sites, such as hanging plants, under a roof, such as an eave, porch roof, or barn or garage overhang.
If you have a well-vegetated yard, it is worthwhile to search some natural nesting sites. Carefully search any vines or trellises, such as clematis and creepers. The winding, interwoven branches are ideal for nest support, or may hide a nest behind the vines, such as on a drainpipe. The branches of deciduous and coniferous trees also make great homes for the finches, especially pine, spruce and cedar species. While you may find some nests higher up in trees, unless you are creative, you may have trouble collecting data on these nests.
You can also create an easy-to-clean nest site by building a nesting platform. Ours are really easy. We simply take 4 pieces of thin wood, such as plywood, to make the platform. The bottom is 4 and 3/4 inches by about 4 inches across. To that we nail 3 sides, each about 4 1/2 inches long and 2 3/4 inches high. Then we put the platform up under some sort of overhang. Usually we duct tape the bottom of a quart container, such as an orange juice container, inside the platform. This makes it easy to clean out the platform after a nest is finished, such as when the young fledge. The nests get quite messy - if you put a container bottom in, it is easy to slide it out and throw it away. If nest platform construction sounds like too much of an undertaking, we hear strawberry containers also work quite well!
Another method for finding nests takes even more time and patience. If you have finches regularly feeding at your station, you could intensely observe where the finches go after feeding. Often, brooding or provisioning finches can lead you right to their nest. However, the finches visiting your feeder may be nesting a fair distance away, making any attempts at tracking very difficult. This technique can often be fairly time consuming and frustrating, so proceed forewarned!
If despite all effort at your home, a House Finch nest eludes you, consider talking to your neighbors. They too might be interested in participating in the House Finch Nest Survey or allowing you to systematically search their yard and home. Local shops and businesses are also a possibility if House Finches stubbornly refuse to nest at your home. Look for landscaped areas, such as banks and shopping plazas, particularly with small, dense evergreens that are easily accessible. House Finches sometimes nest in loose “colonies” of several pairs, given adequate nest support and food. One enterprising HOFINS participant found many nests along the walkway overhang at a local hospital in 2004. In all nest searching, try to keep in mind how easily a nest can be observed; finding a nest at the top of a conifer certainly is a great discovery, but might not be practical in terms of regular observations.
We are currently in the process of analyzing all the great data from last season. Check back soon for updates!