Summer Cleaning

Every year, people all across the country put out nest boxes for their neighborhood birds. Putting out the nest boxes is only half the job, however. Equally important, but often forgotten, is the responsibility to clean out the boxes between nests.

This column appeared in The Recorder on July 3.

Last Wednesday I took advantage of one of this summer’s perfect evenings and spent several hours on my deck. I read for a while, then I switched over to writing in my black journal, but all the while I was monitoring the landscape around me for bird activity. My observations were many.

The neighborhood woodpeckers had been successful in raising their first broods of the year and all of the families were focusing their attention on extracting peanuts from my peanut feeders. Bright-eyed, brassy and infused with a hefty dose of excitement, the young woodpeckers looked at me with curiosity rather than alarm. This was good because this is how I make so many avian friends.

I also noticed that the airspace above my yard was suffering from a conspicuous absence of tree swallows. I normally feel as though I should hire an air traffic controller in the month of June, but on that evening I would have been paying for nothing. There were no swallows around, which, again, I took this as a good sign.

The swallows had been bustling the previous weekend with that frenzied, all out panic that parents sometimes exhibit at pizza restaurants filled with young children. The swallows had been feeding healthy, well-developed chicks that were close to fledging and the sudden lack of activity told me that the chicks had fledged. Another success!

Thursday morning was quite different from the previous day. Rather than azure skies with bright sun, they sky was dominated by high, heavy clouds. This was perfect because bright sunlight makes photography difficult due to the exaggerated differences between light and dark areas. Cloudy days are much better for closeup photography.

I have four nest boxes in my yard and all of them were designed to be easily opened and monitored. This is an essential feature of nest boxes because they require a lot of TLC from whoever put them out. Boxes need to be cleaned out in the spring, checked regularly during nesting, and then cleaned after each nesting event. The reasons for this are threefold.

First, the boxes may have been occupied during the winter. On more than one occasion I have opened up a box to discover it filled with leaves and cattail down. This is the sure sign of mouse habitation, which is fine during the winter. In the springtime, however, mice must be evicted to make room for avian tenants. Second, we don’t want to support house sparrows or European starlings. Anyone who puts out a box should know what these nests look like (go to the Readers Corner page of my website for details) and remove them with extreme prejudice. Finally, you need to be able to clean out the boxes because babies can be messy and nests can attract parasites and ants.

I wandered over to the first box in my yard and didn’t even have to open it to see what was going on. A little face was poking out of the entrance and then an adult tree swallow swooped down to deliver an insect. I took up a favorable position and waited for another delivery so I could get a photo.

I then moved on to the second box and found it empty of house wrens, but full of “wren residue.” A tube of thin, brittle tissue that is similar to fingernail cuticles surrounds growing feathers. This tissue crumbles as the new feathers unfurl, leaving a lot of dust behind. House wrens can have 6-8 chicks in a nest, which results in a lot of cuticle dust. I pulled out the nest, dumped out the dust and shut the box again.

The third box had been full of tree swallows the previous weekend, but when I checked inside I found it pasted with swallow droppings. When I attempted to pull out the nest I had to use both hands because it had been cemented to the bottom of the box. This box needed a serious cleaning so I left the door open and planned to return with some soapy water and a brush.

When I approached the last box I saw a wren peek out and then dash away. When I opened the front cover I found a beautiful nest filled with 7 eggs. The wrens that had already raised one brood had moved on to start another. Fourteen young wrens will give me endless scoldings when I walk my trails this summer.

So today I celebrate another successful year of birds breeding in my yard. No losses of any kind so far! I hope you have had similar success in your own nest box endeavors and I hope you have a wonderful Fourth of July. Have fun, stay safe, and stay tuned for more outdoor adventures.