Are Your Bird Houses Ready for Fall and Winter?
Tips on Preparing Bird Houses for Fall and Winter
You purchased a sturdy, well-ventilated bird house, and mounted it so birds could easily move in and start raising a family. Good for you! There, your job is done, right? Uh, No. . .as a caretaker for your songbird families, another responsibility comes with the territory. Maintaining bird houses so they provide a clean, healthy and safe environment for your feathered friends is a major priority!
How Do You Know If Your Birds Have Finished Nesting?
First of all, make sure your backyard birds have finished nesting and raising their families for the season. Here in the northeast, our birds have successfully added another generation of songbirds to the population, and they are finished by the end of August.
Observe for a Week
Depending upon where in the south or west you live, your birds may continue to nest later in the year. The best way to make sure your avian friends are all done with their bird house for the season is to watch the house for at least a week. If you don’t see Mom or Pop leaving or entering the house in that amount of time, it is safe to assume they are no longer using it.
Some finches like the House Finch nest later in the season, in time for the seed-bearing plants to mature. House Finches are one of a very few that feed seeds to their youngsters, rather than protein-rich insects. The brood parasite cowbird will sometimes deposit an egg in a house finch nest, but the hatchling cowbird will not survive on the all-plant diet.
Keep in mind that young birds may sometimes return to their birthplace.
So it’s a good idea to also watch for their return during your week of bird house observation. If you should see a spider web across the house entrance, it is a sure sign that no birds have been coming or going recently!
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Another way to be sure bird nesting season is done is to carefully and quietly open up the bird house and peak in. If there is no active nest, i.e. there are no eggs or baby birds, then you may safely remove your birdhouse for cleaning. This is why it is helpful to make sure the bird house you buy has easy access for checking on baby birds, and for cleaning out old nesting material, debris and dirt.
Preparing Your Bird Houses for Winter Storage
What You Will Need
Items That Might Be Helpful
Several Thick Layers of Newspaper
Garden or Plastic Gloves
Plastic Trash Bag
Small Scrub or Wire Brush
Large Paper or Plastic Bag for Storing the Clean Bird House
How to Clean Bird Feeders, Houses and Baths
What Exactly Is a Bird House Clean Out?
A clean out gives you easy access to the inside of your birdhouse. It can be located on the bottom, back, front, side or roof of the box. Removing one or more screws will allow you to open your bird house, or sometimes there is a hinge and possibly a latch to release.
Bird Man Mel shows you how to clean bird feeders and baths as well as bird houses, in this short but informative video.
Steps for Cleaning Bird Houses
- Spread out several thicknesses of newspaper onto a flat surface outdoors. Open up the bird house ‘clean out’ and remove any nesting material, dirt, debris, etc., collecting all of it on the newspapers. If there is no clean out, you can shake your birdhouse over the papers until nothing more comes out. If necessary, use a stiff but flexible length of wire to dislodge any leftover nesting materials, and then shake and dump.
- Gather up the newspapers and put them into a plastic garbage bag; close the top of the bag securely. If there has been a nest mite infestation, you don’t want any of those nasty tiny parasites to have a chance to multiply in the environment! By the way, adult mites are no bigger than this dot [.]
- Mix up a solution of 1 part of bleach and 10 parts of clear water. I have a dedicated old pitcher with a spout that works well for this, especially if there is no clean out or easy access to the inside of the bird house. Pour this warm water/bleach solution into the bird house a little at a time. Move the liquid around and dump it out where it will not harm plants, animals or humans. Repeat a couple more times and then follow with clean, plain warm water.
- If your bird house has an accessible clean out, you can use a wire brush to scrub the inside with the bleach/water solution, then rinse out thoroughly several times. It should not smell of bleach when it is completely dry. If you can smell bleach, then you need to rinse until that odor disappears.
- On another thickness of newspapers, leave your bird house outside in the sunshine and wind to dry thoroughly. This might take a day or two, depending upon the amount of humidity in your area. So watch the weather forecast!
- This is a good time to make sure any nails or screws are tight, and replace any that are missing. Ensure there are no splinters or broken pieces that might harm adults or young birds. If necessary, use sandpaper to smooth any rough spots, especially at the entrance hole.
- I like to wrap my dry bird houses with plain brown paper, or place the house into a paper bag. Close the bag tightly so that no insects can enter. Store in a dry place on a shelf in your garage or shed.
Trouble With Mice In Your Bird Houses?
Try using some peppermint oil inside the bird house or outside the entrance hole. Mice hate the smell of mint, and will seek shelter elsewhere. If you have access to mint plants, consider planting them at the base of your bird houses. Be careful, though, as they can be very invasive. They grow laterally under and on top of the ground, sending out shoots in all directions. I like to grow them in large bushel baskets full of dirt very near my bird homes. That way they can only go as far as the sides of the basket.
It's Really Important to Clean Your Bird Houses
All this may seem like a major hassle that you can skip, but it is vitally important that you keep your bird houses clean and parasite free for the next generation of birds. The bleach/water mixture kills bacteria from old droppings, and diseases carried by lice, fleas, ticks and other parasites, as well as the tiny critters and their eggs; all of which can pose a very real risk to nestlings.
Some birds will even pass up a bird house if it has debris or old nesting material inside. It really doesn't take that long to mix up a bucket of life-saving bleach/water. Just make sure you use the proper proportions of 1 part bleach to 10 parts of water, and rinse thoroughly.
NEVER USE TOXIC CHEMICAL PESTICIDES INSIDE OR OUTSIDE YOUR BIRD HOUSES!
Spraying chemicals inside a nest box could potentially harm or even kill nestlings. Using harmful pesticides on the outside of the box may also pose a threat to adult as well as fledgling birds.
Bees Invading Your Nest Boxes?
To keep bees from taking up residence in your birdhouses, open up your clean out and rub non-perfumed and non-deodorant soap on the inside of the roof. Bees will not be able to attach their nests! Never use toxic pesticides!
Baby Birds Are Helpless Against Parasites
Don’t assume if you live in a northern climate that these tiny critters will freeze! Nest mites can survive from -4 degrees to +125 degrees Fahrenheit. Their detrimental effects on tiny birds, as well as adults, can range from minor itching irritation, to anemia and/or a severely compromised immune system; all of which can lead to death.
Remember, baby birds are helpless to fight off pesky critters that might be hiding in old nesting material. It often happens that insect and parasite infestations in bird houses actually kill baby birds before they ever have a chance to open their eyes! It’s up to you to become a vigilant caretaker ensuring your young feathered aviators survive and thrive.
Are Fire Ants a Problem?
To get rid of fire ants, use a commercially available citrus oil product to douse the ant mound. This is a natural alternative to toxic concoctions. Check with your local farm store or online to find this product.
Do You Live Where Birds Nest Longer?
If you live where birds nest longer during the year, re-hang your clean nest boxes so they will be ready to house more birds in a healthy environment. Your bird hatching success rate should be higher when you practice routine cleaning of their homes.
Keep Snakes Out of Bird Houses
If snakes are finding that nest box just too irresistible to pass up, add a 2’ long piece of hardware cloth to your bird house pole below the bottom of the nesting box. For more protection from egg-robbing snakes, a cone-shaped baffle works very well for keeping those reptiles from entering your bird house. Make sure the top of the cone fits snugly around your bird house pole.
Using Bird Houses as Shelters Over the Winter
Here in the northeast, I use my bird houses as shelters for over-wintering birds like chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches and juncos, and any other bird that might like to huddle for the night. So instead of storing them, my houses serve a vital purpose when bitter cold winds and heavy snows decide to hit.
Several of my bird houses have fronts that open and can be reversed so that the entrance hole is then at the bottom. The front of the house is held by one small nail on either side, which makes for easy transitioning to a roost box. If you can access the interior of your nesting box, stapling a piece of hardware cloth to the inside back and sides will give birds a place to cling while they huddle together.
You might also consider hanging your bird house upside down so that the entrance hole would then be at the bottom. Be aware that most bird houses have drainage holes or ventilation slots in the bottom piece, so those would need to be covered against any snow or rain entering the box. Keep in mind that this cover will need to be removed in the spring when the bird house is once again hung right side up for nesting purposes.
Roosting Boxes For Backyard Birds
You can also buy roosting boxes that are made with inside perches or a roughed-up interior onto which birds can cling. These boxes are sealed tightly against the cold, unlike regular bird houses that have ventilation slots under the roof. They are usually made with thicker wood for better insulation; and most importantly, the entrance hole is located toward the bottom of the structure.
Since warm air rises and cold air sinks, any heat produced by birds gathering together on their perches collects and remains in the upper part of the bird box, rather than escaping through the entrance hole. Birds congregating in a shelter can produce enough warmth to significantly improve their chances of surviving what otherwise might be deadly storms.
For ease of cleaning at the end of the season, you can add wood shavings to the bottom of roost boxes. Packages of wood shavings are available at pet stores and online. Droppings, feathers, etc. will end up in the shavings; and it can all be discarded onto newspapers and thrown away.
REGULAR BIRD NESTING BOXES vs. ROOSTING BOXES
You can see that regular bird houses are not as efficient as roosting boxes for protection from harsh weather conditions. But they can still help if placed securely in dense evergreen trees, with the entrance hole directed away from the prevailing winds.
Alternatively, mounting the bird house on a protected side of your house, and preferably where it would receive sunny warmth during the daytime hours, is another option. For several winter seasons now, I have seen as many as three downy woodpeckers emerge from the bird house hanging under my eaves, where it guards them from hostile conditions!
So you see, it doesn’t take very much to help our feathered friends survive Mother Nature’s extremes. With all the other stresses they have to face, not the least of which are habitat loss and window, and now wind turbine collisions, it seems a simple but helpful way for us to show appreciation for our wintertime companions.
'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds to Survive and Thrive'
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