I absolutely stunned one of our members last week. We had just completed a site visit and were enjoying lunch when he asked, "If there was only one thing you would want me to do, what would it be?" My answer? "Remove your nest boxes." After recovering from his shock, he stated that was the absolute last thing he would have expected.
It is probably the last thing many of the people we work with at Audubon International would expect. Many are surprised to find that we don't require nest boxes for certification. I find that many people, upon making the decision to be more environmental, start with installing next boxes. But that is usually when the project basically stops. As in the case of this member, nest boxes are usually cleaned out once a year, typically as a winter project. I will now, therefore, take the opportunity to stand up on my soap box and state for the record:
If you are not going to monitor your nest boxes and remove invasive species, then you should not have nest boxes.
The reason is that house sparrows and European swallows will almost always out-compete our native species. When allowed to nest successfully, their increased numbers can cause a decrease in the numbers of bluebirds and tree swallows, exactly the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.
Don't get me wrong. I love nest boxes when done properly. I have them myself and love to show off the romantic bluebird couple, followed by the eggs, then the young, and, during good years, we might even get a second nesting. But my current success was preceded by years of only kicking out house sparrows.
One way to decide whether you should have nest boxes is to ask yourself if you or anyone on your crew has time to monitor each nest box at least once every two weeks during the nesting season. How about someone that visits the property regularly or a neighbor that will take on the project? If the answers are no, ask yourself if there is a local birding group that might welcome the opportunity to start a new nest box trail. Some members have been successful in creating an "adopt-a-box" program where patrons monitor "their" box. If all your inquiries yield no one willing to monitor, then a nest box project is not right for your property.
Why bother at all then? Nest boxes can provide you with an excellent way to tell your environmental story. But, and this is a very strong but, only if the boxes are carefully monitored. Knowing exactly what species (Eastern Bluebird) and how many young fledged (5) is a great way for me to highlight the importance of my tall grass areas and convince my husband, who loves to mow, why we don't need more lawn. So think about nest boxes as fitting more in your outreach and education efforts. It's an opportunity to include people in your stewardship efforts, justify your natural areas, and provide a great story. Nestcams are a new fad and members have live feeds into their clubhouses or on their websites. Exciting stuff!
For more information on nest boxes and monitoring, I recommend visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's NestWatch
program and clicking on the Learn tab.