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Cleaning A Bird Box – A Guide 

Bird boxes are an invaluable resource for many bird species, and provide a respite from the harsh weather conditions over the wintering period. 

There are many notable examples of the benefits bird boxes provide. The most famed conservation success story, however, is the use of human intervention via bird boxes to save the plummeting populations of Eastern Bluebirds across North America. 

But, what happens to a  bird box after you’ve installed it? Does it need a bit of tender love and care? Or is it a one-time set up?

This article will explore what and how you should care for your bird box to ensure future populations of birds continue to use these life-saving resources. 

Should you clean out a bird box?

There is often a huge debate about whether it’s best to clear old nesting material from your bird box after the breeding season has finished.

Cleaning a Bird Box
Image by Nest Box Live

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t quite as simple. Throughout the birding community, there are arguments for and against the cleaning of bird boxes. 

A clean bird box decreases the risk of infectious diseases, which could rapidly decrease bird populations. 

However, some species naturally clean out their living quarters. Interfering with this behavior, may cause significant behavioral changes and may lead to a decrease in breeding the following season.

This article is a guide of my experience with bird boxes. I will attempt to debunk the myths and provide, what I think, is the best advice for ensuring birds get the five-star treatment they deserve.

Benefits Of Artificial Bird Boxes 

Like any other wildlife-friendly resources in your garden, such as feeding stations or water trays, bird boxes should receive special attention because they play a significant role in the local biodiversity landscape. 

Bird boxes provide artificial sites for nesting opportunities and attempt to mimic natural cavities found in trees. 

Bluebird with Nesting Material
Image by Drunken Birder© via Instagram

Many species, such as bluebirds, chickadees and nuthatches, are secondary-cavity nesting birds. They lack physical adaptations that allow them to construct their own cavities. Instead, they rely on other species, such as woodpeckers, to construct cavities for them.

Of course, this tactic relies on a stable population of cavity constructors, or primary-cavity nesting birds. With the current risks facing our bird populations, from habitat loss to climate change, potential nesting sites are becoming few and far between. 

Artificial bird boxes create more opportunities and decrease intraspecific competition. 

Many bird boxes are specifically designed to prohibit the entry of larger, invasive species, such as sparrows. Unlike natural cavities, they also provide better protection from harsh weather events and predators. 

Due to this, scientists have concluded that certain areas with bird boxes have a higher concentration of bird populations. Other studies have found that certain bird species, such as house wrens, actively choose artificial nest boxes over natural cavities. 

Why Should I Clean Bird Boxes?

Birds, similar to other wildlife, are not immune to infections and diseases. 

Certain species of bird are more susceptible to certain diseases. For example, waterfowl, nesting in artificial houses, are significantly affected by a plethora of diseases, such as avian botulism, duck plague and Aspergillosis

Passerine species, such as the Eastern Bluebirds, are prone to Trichomoniasis. Otherwise known as Cranker, Trichomoniasis is a parasite that was discovered in 2005. It is most often associated with unsanitary and dirty feeders, and is transferred from bird to bird by infected regurgitated food.

Trichomoniasis causes caseous accumulations in the throat, severely affecting feeding. Starvation, or other complications, are often inevitable. 

By keeping a bird box clean, you significantly decrease the risk of the spread of pathogens, which may otherwise negatively affect the nesting bird itself, her clutch of developing eggs, or even the wider environment. 

An Ecosystem Within A Bird Box

Most birds typically use a mixture of lawn moss, twigs and feathers when building their nests, but it’s not uncommon to find bits of leaves or other foreign objects inside. 

Bird Box Nesting Material
Image by Nest Box Live

To the untrained eye, the nest-building process may seem random and messy. 

This is partly true. 

Messy though it may be, the nest-building process is a thought-out procedure, with many considerations. 

Firstly, the bird creates a soft foundation that forms the base layer. This is maneuvered into place by flapping its wings against the material that pushes it into place. Depending on the species, this can either be the female, male or both. 

Secondly, twigs are added to provide strength. 

Finally, feathers are added to protect the eggs.

All these materials form a mini ecosystem within the bird box, creating a breeding ground for insects. Mites, small spiders and ants are usually the first to move in, and enjoy the warm and dark environment, especially when the cooler nights start setting in. 

These types of invertebrates are great to have in the garden, as they increase biodiversity by attracting larger predators – many people don’t realize that insects make up a large proportion of the diet of many garden bird species. These insects provide essential nutrients, such as protein and calcium, both of which are crucial throughout the year but especially during breeding season.

Whilst it may feel unsettling to have these small creatures inside your nest box, they are usually harmless and don’t affect the birds. 

However, there may be some parasitic mites present. In small numbers, avian mites do not cause any significant harm to birds. However, in a dirty and humid bird box, populations of avian mites can spread like wildfire and cause health risks for birds. 

Avian mites may bite if contact with human skin is made. Although these bites may cause skin irritations, they are not known to transmit any disease. Always use gloves if cleaning bird boxes. 

Should I Provide Nesting Material 

It may seem tempting to provide a little helping hand over the colder months by offering soft material such as cotton or wool. 

Afterall, birds need soft material to nest, right?

Bluebird Eggs
Image by Drunken Birder© via Instagram

Wrong! One of the greatest misconceptions is that birds need soft material inside their nests to roost, or sleep. 

Whilst soft material is often found in nests, it is for insulation purposes – not nesting comfort. Many bird species will forage their own insulating materials, such as fur or feathers, themselves. Any artificial products may cause more harm than good due to the presence of treatment chemicals. 

Birds have the ability to fluff up their feathers, allowing air to be trapped. If more air is being trapped between each feather, then this reduces the amount of cold air reaching their bodies. This behavior, along with any naturally-foraged insulating materials, is more than enough to keep the bird warm. 

It’s important to remember that birds are well-adapted to cope in colder environments and their natural defenses often provide superior protection than a human intervention.

What Should I Use To Clean Out A Bird Box?

This is a simple answer – only boiling water should be used to clean out a bird box. 

Once the nesting material is removed, using gloves of course, you should rinse the box with boiling water and give it a good scrub with a hard bristled brush. It’s often beneficial to do this several times, ensuring that there is no debris left behind. 

You should avoid using any chemicals or cleaning products, as this can leave residue behind which can harm birds. 

Once the box has been thoroughly cleaned, allow enough time for it to air dry. A few hours should be sufficient enough.

When Should I Clean My Bird Box?

Timing is important.

Whilst you can clean out the box after the chicks have fledged, it’s often a good idea to wait until September once the breeding season has ended. 

In some parts of the word, including the UK and some jurisdictions in North America, it is illegal to intentionally destroy the nest of any wild bird during the breeding season, or whilst a nest is being built. 

In the absence of a nest box camera, it’s often best to wait until the season has ended before removing any materials. 

How To Clean A Bird Box: A Step-by-step Guide:

1. Put on a pair of garden gloves to protect against any insects or mites that may be present.

2. Disassemble the front plate of the box using a screwdriver.

3. Remove all nesting material (Be aware there may be unhatched eggs present).

4. Use boiling water and rinse the internal chamber several times to remove any mites.

5. Scrub with a hard bristled brush to clear any stubborn stains.

6. Allow several hours to air dry.

7. Reassemble the box and site in the previous location.

So, Should I Clean My Bird Box?

I would suggest cleaning out a bird box after the breeding season, but this is a personal choice. For good hygiene practices, and to minimize disruption and disturbances, I recommend cleaning your bird box in September. 

But, with a lack of substantial research in the area, it comes down to personal preference. However, as with most things in life, don’t underestimate the power of common sense. 

Choosing to clear out a nest box after breeding season will most likely have little to no impact on whether birds choose to use it the following breeding season. 

I have seen many cases where birds have chosen to use nest boxes year after year with the previous year’s nesting material present, which has resulted in successful breeding. 

But equally, the same argument can be applied to nest boxes that have had the nesting material of the season removed. 

It may be as simple as a personal preference of the bird themselves. 

However, one thing is for certain. by having a bird box in your garden you are providing another opportunity for birds to reproduce.