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The Wetland Explorer: Spring Cleaning for your Nest Box
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Bluebirds are beginning to construct nests in the area. Special bluebird nest boxes prevent other species of birds, like European starlings and House Sparrows from nesting in these structures. (Photo by Dan Witt)

It is quite evident by now that Spring is upon us. Insects are beginning to emerge, trees are beginning to bloom, days are getting longer, and the birds...  Have you noticed how active the birds in your yard are recently? Singing, chasing each other, and maybe even gathering nesting materials have become the birds’ daily routine.
Interestingly, several bird species in the area have been on nests for a couple months and already are tending to baby birds. Great-horned owls are the earliest nesters in Kansas with some birds laying eggs as early as mid-January. We have been observing a Great-horned owl’s nest near the Kansas Wetlands Education Center for over a month, and we are pretty sure young owls have already hatched.
Another bird that we have observed getting in the nesting mood is the Eastern bluebird. Bluebirds can be seen in this area all year; however, some bluebirds migrate south for the winter, and it is usually in mid-March that they return and you can watch breeding pairs start bringing grass, small sticks, and even feathers to their nest boxes.
If you are interested in watching nesting birds, you have several options. Do you have a bird house or nest box in your yard? If you do, and you have not cleaned last year’s nest material out of it, you need to do that very soon. Birds like to start fresh, so cleaning the old material out of the nest box is important. And, the old material can contain parasites and diseases that might hurt the new nesters.
Unfortunately, in an urban setting, bird houses can also attract unwanted guests, like European starlings and House sparrows, both of which are not native to this area. Because of this, we really do not want to help them out nesting. While no nest box is fully House sparrow proof, you can discourage both of these species of birds from overtaking your nest box if you are persistent.
The most effective way of discouraging unwanted birds in your bird house is through exclusion. You can purchase bird houses with smaller openings that will allow small birds in, like wrens and bluebirds, but not larger birds like starlings.
Another method to discourage unwanted nesters is by disrupting their nest building. It takes work, but if you see a House sparrow beginning to make a nest in your nest box, clean the material out right away. After cleaning out the nest several times, eventually the bird will get the hint and hopefully move on to another location. Because House sparrows and starlings are exotic species, it is legal to remove or harass them; however, other species are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Finally, if you are still looking for ways to monitor nests, but do not feel like your yard is the right place or it is too much work to manage a nest box, there are numerous nest cameras that you can access online. Many nature centers and wildlife areas have installed nest cams inside nest boxes or above nests in trees for a variety of different species of birds. Many popular nest cams exist for Bald eagles and other raptors, but other nest cams are accessible to watch Great blue herons and even hummingbirds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website has 15 different nest cams you can access. Or, a simple search online will allow you to monitor nests all over the world from the comfort of your computer monitor.
Spring is a time of great activity for us and our feathered friends alike. It is important to take some time and appreciate what is happening in our little pieces of nature. Before we know it, the seasons will change and the heat of the summer will slow us down.