Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Best practices for birdhouses

A reader from Pittsfield reported to have recently spotted 22 blue jays in his yard.

Q Many years ago, my father made birdhouses to hang on trees in his yard. Every fall, he would take them down, clean out the nests, hose out the insides and then hang them on the [covered] back porch until the next spring. The birdhouses weren't painted when they were new, so over the years, the wood has weathered a lot (but not rotted). I think it's too late this year for me to start putting up nest boxes, but if I have all the correct information, I should be able to do a good job next year.

My questions are:

- How high up on the tree trunk should I place them? All the trees in this yard are red pine and very tall with foliage only at the top.

- I think I should remove all the old nesting materials from the nest boxes —     is that correct?

- Should I clean and paint them now, and put them up next spring? (This is what makes the most sense to me.)

- Is there a product I should use (at the end of the season) on the inside of the birdhouse     to kill lice, etc.? What is it and where would I buy it?

Any information you care to impart will be welcome, but please write it down — I'm 80 and my memory isn't as sharp as it once was!

— Susan, Dummerston, Vt.

A I'm 78 and neither is mine!

- Height is important to a point. Ideally, bluebirds prefer fence post height — 4 1/2 to 5 feet; tree swallows upwards to 10 feet; house wren and chickadee 4 1/2 to 5 feet. And those nasty English sparrows, don't seem to care. I say nasty because they are even worse than house wrens in harming other nesting birds they come across. I have had English sparrows destroy bluebird eggs and kill adult bluebirds sitting on eggs. House wrens are known to fill in-use boxes with twigs, thus destroying the success of whatever bird was using the box.

- Some say yes, others no. For bluebirds and tree swallows, I suggest removing the used nest and bagging up the debris for rubbish removal. Put on a dust mask and use rubber gloves. Although not necessary, a 10-percent bleach solution may be used to clean the next boxes. Save the cleaning for bird feeders, it is far more important than cleaning houses.

- Clean in the fall to remove nesting material and you may have to reclean in early March if mice decided to spend the winter there. Some species don't mind used nests. If you leave the nest intact through the summer and winter, it may help with the jewel wasps control up to 60 percent of blowfly larvae that are harmful because they feed on the blood of nestlings.

- Don't bother painting. Natural works for me and the birds.

- Thinking back, I never cleaned the inside of a nest box.


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Q I wanted to comment on the letter from an Eagle reader about the unusually large number of blue jays she was seeing at her feeders. I wanted to echo that observation here on the west side of the Taconics. This spring, the blue jays have arrived in a big crowd, and I counted 22 of them at once under the feeders. They persisted in those numbers for quite a while. It was an all-blue surprise! Interesting, isn't it?

—Karen, Lebanon Springs, N.Y.

A My guess is that the large number of blue jays you encountered are or were a flock of migrating birds heading north. While we have some blue jays sometimes spending a winter with us, often as not they leave in the fall.


Q I saw the northern Berkshire bird list in yesterday's paper, but it did not list nighthawks. I haven't seen them in years, but I have been seeing them many evenings this week in West Stockbridge. They have the white patches under the wings and fly like nighthawks. Are they back? Are they passing through? Am I seeing something else and mistaking them?

— David, West Stockbridge

A If these were nesting birds, I think I would have heard them and, probably, the North Berkshire birders would have recorded a few. Again, this is one of two primary seasons for migrating and nighthawks feed on flying insects, so are forced to migrate. We used to have large numbers nesting on rooftops in downtown Pittsfield, but my thought is that crows, when they moved into cities and towns from farms and rural areas, they did in nesting nighthawks and also killdeer that we sometimes saw nesting on gravel rooftops.


Q I live in Pittsfield and have two bird houses up high on a pole. Being a bird lover, I was fortunate to move into a house on Pine Grove and already have those there! I have lived here for about four years. I have never cleaned them out. I would need a ladder and I'm a little afraid to do this. I have house wrens year-round, going in and out, so they must be happy with their homes. I never see anything bother them. I do, however, find a dead baby at the bottom on the ground, but not that often.

The reason for my letter is the other morning there were massive amounts of "stuffing" hanging out of one of them. I got a rake and pulled it all down, but what the heck did that? I never see squirrels or chipmunks interested in either house. I've never seen another bird go to that house except wrens. It must have happened during the night. Love your column, I learn a lot.

— Kim, Pittsfield

A I think it is one house wren family fighting the suspected competition from a neighboring house wren family or other species, maybe a tree swallow or bluebird. Male house wrens sometimes do this and often build beginning nests in all available nesting locations to entice a female. If she likes it, they, or he, will finish it.

.Thom Smith welcomes readers' comments and questions. Email him at