Outside the birdbox

Forget the shenanigans that go on amongst gardeners at ground level [Divided we stand, Greyhares, 29 August 2016], there is an altogether different world a little higher up amongst the avian community.

Life for the birds appears altogether easier, but they too have their problems, and in this instance I am talking about residency. With trees being felled nearby, housing for them can be difficult and, to help out, we now have four nesting boxes dotted around the garden; one for owls, one for wrens, and two for blue tits. It is the size of the entrance and height above the ground that determines who takes up occupancy. Blue tits, for example, require a circular doorway 3 cm in diameter and the box should be at a height of 3 metres.

Each year, after the nesting season is over, we check our boxes for recent occupation. Inspection is not always straightforward as brambles, stinging nettles and overgrowing branches convert the more secluded areas of the garden into no-go zones. Last week it was time for reclamation, and after a day’s hacking which brought the inevitable stings, scratches and curses, I cleared a 20-metre path behind the garden shed and around the garage. This at least allowed me to see the blue-tit boxes.

Both boxes showed signs of occupancy, with the tell-tale feathers, twigs and droppings. One box also had a most unusual feature – its front door had been carefully enlarged, so now it was more oval with a width that varied from 3.5 to 4 cm. The new workings could not be the result simply of usage and were too neat for a rat or other rodent so the obvious candidate was a woodpecker. Everybody knows the tap-tapping they make as they carve out their nest in trees; but it can’t be easy (let alone the inevitable headache), so why not go for the simpler option of adapting a ready-made home? Indeed, with a bit of squeeze, the new dimensions would just take the average local green woodpecker.

At this point I recalled some unusual scenes in our garden three months ago. Woodpeckers, with their brilliant red skull caps, are usually solitary birds but this year, for several weeks in mid June, we had a pair of them cavorting and collecting. They clearly found the insects on our lawn and in the bark of a rather craggy palm, to their liking. But, in retrospect, I imagine that ants were only one of their interests; they were there to court and together to make a nest, to hatch their eggs and, for several weeks to look after their chicks, which are born blind so there is plenty to do.

The ingenuity of these woodpeckers in making their 2016 home, reminded me how similar, in this instance, their behaviour was to ours. Within months of buying our house in France, we too started improving accessibility, with three new doors built to give us wider and easier access.

Discovering that both of our blue tit boxes had been put to good use gave me real pleasure, and perhaps there is another pleasure awaiting me too. I have not yet been down the garden to investigate the box that I made for the owls. It is lodged high up in a willow tree in an inaccessible and damp distant corner surrounded by reeds, mud and possibly snakes.  Discovering that an owl and her brood had been in residence would be a real treat but we might have to wait. The books say that adopting a prefabricated bird box can take owls several years.  Let’s see how it goes!

As for the wren box, which was the first we put up and is in easy view of the house, it has remained its usual empty self. Perhaps it needs siting for their convenience, not ours.

3 thoughts on “Thinking inside the box

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