Boxing clever to give birds a fresh start

Birds have put the coldest winter weather for 30 years behind them and are busily pairing up for the breeding season.

But undoubtedly the harsh conditions will have taken their toll on many of our resident birds, and a good breeding season this year would be welcome to help redress the balance.

We can give birds a helping hand by providing safe nesting sites for them in the form of nest boxes, and the British Trust for Ornithology launches its annual National Nest Box Week on Monday, Valentine’s Day, traditionally the day that birds choose their mates.

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The event, which has been running every year since 1997, has undoubtedly played a major part in encouraging us to put up many of the five million-plus nest boxes throughout Britain.

More than 60 species are known to use the boxes, which range from a general type used by many small birds through to more specialised boxes used by owls.

The smaller-holed boxes are preferred by tits and sparrows, while robins, blackbirds and thrushes will readily take to low-fronted open boxes.

A good guide to all types of boxes is the BTO Nestbox Guide, by Chris De Feu, which gives details of how to build your own boxes, where to site and maintain them, and also information on the 24 British bird species that use them most regularly.

For more information, visit www.bto.org.nnbw/index

Nest boxes provide safe sites for birds to raise their young, and these, combined with suitable spring and summer weather, help numbers recover quickly.

Preliminary results from the BTO’s Constant Effort Ringing Scheme show that January 2010’s snow and ice resulted in a 27 per cent fall in robin numbers compared to the five-year average, and a 20 per cent fall in wren numbers.

But both went on to have a good breeding season and productivity, with robins producing 22 per cent more young and wrens 14 per cent.

The impact of this winter’s weather has yet to be determined.

Results from this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch, for which 100,000 survey forms were received in just two days by the RSPB, should provide a vital insight. But whatever the outcome, nest boxes will give many birds a helping hand.

This week’s sunny weather has encouraged many birds of prey to start displaying, with 11 buzzards in the air together at the Fairburn Ings reserve, near Castleford, at least six marsh harriers back at the Blacktoft Sands reserve, and several ring-tailed hen harriers also being seen.

An Arctic redpoll has continued to be seen from time to time along the Riverbank Trail at Fairburn Ings, along with 15 mealy and 100-plus lesser redpolls.

Four long-eared owls, two bitterns, eight white-fronted geese and four redhead smews have also been seen on the reserve.

Two redhead smews have been seen at the Watton Nature Reserve, East Yorkshire, and a drake at Wintersett reservoir, near Wakefield, where a drake red-breasted merganser has also been seen.

A drake ring-necked duck is still at Cowpen Bewley, Cleveland, while a female is still at Nosterfield Nature Reserve, North Yorkshire.

A drake green-winged teal, another North American vagrant, is at Bowesfield Marsh, Cleveland.

An adult ring-billed gull is still visiting Sands Lane gravel pits, West Yorkshire.