How to mount nest boxes

an eastern bluebird sits on a nest box with an insect in its bill

Eastern Bluebirds are a favorite nest box visitor!

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Why are nest boxes used?

Nest boxes, and other bird accommodations, can be traced back to medieval times. These early renditions of birdhouses likely served as a way to house birds for food and other services. As these ideas continued to grow and develop, early naturalists in Great Britain and Germany developed a more 'modern' version of nest boxes. They used these boxes as opportunities to study nesting birds at a close distance or as an early tool for controlling insects locally. Baron von Berlepsc, of Germany, then commercialized the boxes and was likely the first to sell a nest box. Berlepsc mounted over 2,000 boxes in his forest and then continued to produce birdhouses for others to reap the benefits of natural insect control.

Modern bird lovers still appreciate birdhouses' ability to initiate intimate encounters with nesting birds and their pest control efforts. For example, in some vineyards, Barn Owl boxes encourage Barn Owls to move in and control the local rodent populations. Academically, researchers often use nest boxes to create easy access to nestlings for banding, testing, and tracking. These efforts give scientists an inside look at the natural cycles of birds and how humans impact their health and reproduction. For many, these two reasons are not the prime objectives for hanging bird boxes. Instead, birdwatchers hang boxes to respond to the conservation crisis birds are experiencing. Habitat loss is North America's leading threat and cause of mass bird loss. And as habitat losses reach greater heights, the populations of many bird species plummet further. In response, birders and conservationists now hang birdhouses to offer nesting sites for species that have lost suitable nesting habitat. Purple Martins, bluebirds, and screech-owls are only three of a variety of species that have reaped profound benefits from large-scale nest box efforts. Of course, a final use for a birdhouse is simple. Enjoyment. Some people want to enjoy the sights and sounds of a family of birds rearing and fledging in their backyard.

a scientist checks a bluebird box
Scientists often monitor bluebird boxes as part of ongoing research.

Nest boxes have a long history of use in the world. The benefits of a nest box reach beyond use in academics and conservation. As you continue through this article, you will learn how best to use and mount our variety of nest boxes. To learn how to create a birdhouse nesting complex, visit our Bird Neighborhood article!

What birds use nest boxes?

a tree swallow peeks out of a swallow box
Tree Swallows often take up residency in bluebird boxes.

In North America, the diversity of birds potentially found nesting or roosting in a nest box is vast. Different birds will utilize nest boxes depending on the habitat around each person's home and yard. The following list is not comprehensive, so find a full list on this site.

  • Bluebirds nest from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and all species of bluebirds will take advantage of a properly placed bluebird house.
  • Insect-eating swallows and martins leave most of North America during the cold months, but during the nesting season, they filter insects from the sky in every inhabited corner of the United States and Canada.
  • Screech-owls sing out from boxes in the dark across the lower 48 states. Barn Owls patrol night skies on every continent except Antarctica, but in North America, they are primarily found south of the Canadian border.
  • Falcons like the American Kestrel are common across North America and help control local pests like mice and grasshoppers.
  • The elaborate songs of wrens ring out in almost every state, province, and territory, and many wren species appreciate the compact safety of a wren or chickadee box. 
  • Nuthatches exhibit their climbing antics across North America. Three of the four nuthatches are known to take part in nest box offerings.
  • Chickadees and titmice, perhaps the most influential birds to attract to a yard, are all known to nestle down in a birdhouse, and at least one species resides in every locale across the continent.

Over sixty species of birds in North America are known to use a nest box or other artificial nesting structures. With such a large selection of birds to pick from, the next step is to purchase the correct bird homes, select a location, and, finally, mount those boxes.

a western screech owl sits in an owl box
Even owls will use a nest box!

What birds do NOT use nest boxes?

This quick bite of information is more to help prevent bird lovers from being scammed by malicious groups on the internet. Hummingbirds do not use nest boxes. Any ads that suggest otherwise are selling pure junk and lies. Do not purchase hummingbird houses.

Habitat Considerations

While listing the habitat needs for all sixty common birds known for nest box use is impractical in this article, ample resources are available for each species we can direct users to. The most comprehensive guide to nesting birds in North America is NestWatch. This site covers each species' habitat, construction, and timing. From there, learn more about each species' needs at All About Birds, another Cornell Lab of Ornithology production. Certain bird groups also have organizations dedicated to highly detailed considerations. For bluebirds, check out the work of the North American Bluebird Society. To learn about work around Purple Martin conservation and nesting, visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

a house wren sings from a bluebird box
House Wrens will use boxes of many sizes and varieties, even bluebird boxes.

While describing the nesting habitat needs of all birdhouse users might not be feasible, we can provide some helpful information for the groups of birds that we provide nesting boxes for:

  • Chickadees: Chickadees prefer to have forested areas with mature trees. In cities, parks and riparian areas will also attract chickadees. Encouraging a chickadee to take up residency will require a neighborhood of mature trees, and a few birdfeeders might also sweeten the deal.
  • Wrens: Wrens will nest in a variety of habitats, but because these birds like to be a bit secretive, having ample understory (bushes, brush, etc.) may be critical to luring these songsters.
  • Martins and Swallows: Martins and swallows feed in open areas such as meadows and ponds. Keep any trees or other tall structures at least sixty feet away when placing a Purple Martin home. Putting the martin house in an open meadow should yield the best results. For Tree Swallows, these houses can be placed along the forest edge, field edge, and on the sides of buildings. Just ensure there is an adequate feeding area nearby. Barn and Cliff Swallows require specialized structures; they will not use typical nesting boxes.
  • Bluebirds: Bluebird boxes have some flexibility for placement. Open forests, forest edges, grasslands, fences, and even on the sides of buildings will attract bluebirds. The big necessity here is open. Make sure to have ample open space nearby where the bluebirds can hunt for prey.

The habitat recipe for many species might seem complex, but the major takeaway should be a need for native plants to create a backyard native habitat. Use this resource from the National Audubon Society to determine what plants are the best options based on region. To further amplify a bird-friendly yard, check out our best advice!

It's all about the base

A stable nest box ensures the safety of chicks and adult birds against wind, thunderstorms, and predators. To achieve this, the base of the object the birdhouse is attached to must be secure. If a box is attached to a tree or structure, the base is thick and can handle a lot of punishment. However, having a nest box attached to either of these structures can allow access from predators like squirrels, raccoons, or snakes. Bluebird, swallow, and martin houses function more safely when mounted on fitted poles that hold the box while minimizing ground predator access. For those that wish to use a wooden post, use a board or post long enough to elevate the nest box to the proper height while keeping enough base secured in the soil.

bluebird boxes attached to t posts
T-posts can be used in a pinch, but we do not recommend them.

Even with a proper pole system, rocky and gravel-laden soils can create unstable houses. Birds Choice's ground twister anchor is optimized to hold firm, even in difficult soils. But in worse-case scenarios, we recommend using post-hole diggers to remove a core section of soil and rock. Then, refill with fill dirt from an adjacent location, tamp and pack the new soil firm, then insert the pole using the ground screw. We do not recommend using cement to hold a post in place (except for the Purple Martin pole kit), as concrete makes moving a nest box more challenging while also changing soil composition. A change in soil composition may seem insignificant, but it can affect nearby invertebrates, leading to a cascading effect on birds.

Securing the bottom of your bird box is a crucial second step in mounting this future treasure chest. A location settled, a pole prepared, next learn the height and direction to mount this future nest.

Good things come in small packages

When thinking of bird nests, we often look up to the tops of the trees. But most species that use these bird homes do not need to be much higher than the reach of our outstretched arms. A long pole or tall mount is unnecessary and even counterproductive. A nest that is too elevated will discourage use by potential tenants. And while Purple Martins require their nesting structures to be elevated between ten and fifteen feet high, most nest boxes will not need a ladder. And luckily, thanks to our telescoping pole, our Purple Martin houses and poles will not require a ladder either! Adhere to the recommended mounting heights in the list below.

a bluebird box mounted in the mountains
Bluebird, swallow, and wren nest boxes do not need to be mounted very high.

The direction the entrance hole faces is also a factor resident birds use. Too much sun, too little sun, prevailing winds, and noise and light pollution can impact a nesting family's comfort and safety levels. Researchers offer a general mounting direction for most species, but all items mentioned above should also be considered.

As we see in the following list, closely related species can share nest height and box direction. But please confer with this list for specifications offered species by species.

  • Bluebirds: Nest boxes should be placed between four and six feet high for all three bluebird species. Face all bluebird houses east toward the morning sun.
  • Chickadees: Nest boxes can be placed between five and fifteen feet for all chickadee species. Face the entrances away from prevailing winds, though the Carolina Chickadee can be more tolerant of box direction.
  • Martins: Purple Martin houses should be mounted between ten and fifteen feet high. Face the homes toward the south or west.
  • Swallows: Tree Swallow boxes should sit from five to six feet high, but Violet-green Swallows need their nests mounted nine to fifteen feet tall. Both species prefer a nest box facing south or east.
  • Wrens: Wrens will use nests between three and ten feet high. There is no preference for direction for most wrens.

Keep the predators at bay

As a final step for mounting a Birds Choice nest box, consider using a predator guard to prevent bird and mammalian predators that may try to raid the nest. 

Use the domed baffle with the bluebird house pole to deter ground predators like squirrels and raccoons. These baffles shake and rattle, preventing climbing mammals from getting a grip on the metal shaft. And yes, they are essential. Why? Squirrels are known predators of eggs, nestlings, and fledglings. We hope this shocking information may encourage maximum security efforts to protect nest boxes from stunned readers. If a feeder is on a pole without a baffle, a hole guard will stop rodent predators from chewing the hole large enough to enter.

dome squirrel baffle
A dome squirrel baffle will keep crawling critters off of nest boxes.

Avian predators create a new host of problems! They can fly, climb, and perch, and most are small enough to fit into the entrance holes of cavity-nesting birds. What can a bird enthusiast do? Birds Choice has come prepared. We offer guards for Purple Martins, bluebirds, and a host of smaller birds. These guards prevent entry to starlings, woodpeckers, grackles, and other larger predatory birds looking for an easy snack.

These quick additions require little more than a screwdriver, and they add another safety blanket for newly hatched baby birds.

A MOUNTain of information

We have provided a plethora of information regarding the setup of nest boxes. Think of it less as overwhelming and more as a comprehensive approach to preparing for a new family of backyard friends. Following the provided advice will ensure a lasting space for baby birds to hatch and fledge for generations.