Well, everything needs a place to get out of the elements. There are times when every element of weather needs to be avoided. Whether that’s the overpowering heat of the sun. Wind that just won’t let up or rain that feels never ending. Whilst we know that it will end, as all things do. Wildlife does not have that ability for foresight and deals very much in the ‘now’ of life.
Established ‘homes’ will often become a part of birds, bats or a hedgehogs daily routines. For all year, when looking for food for example and shelter is needed, or as somewhere to hide from the elements as discussed above, or hide from predators or to sleep or hibernate, but also especially when looking to raise cubs or chicks.
But, we also install animal boxes for us. It is seriously satisfying seeing an animal house we have installed getting use. Watching blue tits flying in and out of a nest box with food or listening to the sound of hungry chicks calling for food is so satisfying. Or the excitement of seeing footprints, or a trail leading to a hedgehog box, or even the droppings hedgehogs often leave.
And the feeling of hopeful expectation that a bat just might use the box we have put up is huge.
It is also possible that creatures other than those we intended might use them too. So there’s always the promise of surprise too. There are many different animal houses that you could install, but for now lets concentrate on three, homes for birds, bats and hedgehogs.
Birds will be more likely to use a nest box to raise a brood if they have been using it over winter to shelter in. And they will do this in large numbers sometimes too. Back in my RSPB days we had a box with something like 56 wrens in it. It’s not just the box itself, but the warmth generated by that many bodies huddled together. As very small birds proportionately they have a large surface area so therefore lose heat much quicker than a bigger bird or animal for that matter.
For this reason bird boxes are ideally put up in the winter, but ultimately the second best time to put them up is whenever you think about it or have the time. And put up several, there are no estate agents in the bird world so they have to look all by themselves and want a choice available just as we do.
You might also think about the birds you want to encourage into your garden to nest. They are all partial to certain favourable conditions. Blue tits require an opening no bigger than 32 mm in diameter, any bigger and your birdbox, no matter how well made or expensive will stay unused.
Robin boxes tend to have large openings to the front, they are an aggressive little species so probably figure they can fight off any attackers. Little warriors they are.
Sparrows like to live in busy flocks and tend to nest close together. There are boxes lined up in banks, I tend to avoid these, but put single boxes up in clusters and I’m sure you will have success.
The other species that need help in our gardens is house martins. They like ‘boxes’ put up on our soffits, they will come back to the same nest year after year so like to refurbish it on their return each time. Put out a saucer of soft mud near the nest. This will make it more appealing, because less energy will be required to find the necessary raw materials. For this reason the ready made nests that you can buy are kind of ‘half’ done because martins like to ‘spring’ clean.
If you are lucky enough to have a large garden or some large trees you might like to try some boxes for larger birds. Kestrel boxes are similar to robin boxes, just much larger, similarly with open fronts and owls will nest in boxes, they just like to feel they are very sheltered in them. The fronts have holes in them like those for blue tits, again it’s just a question of scale.
Bats also need boxes in which to roost. Whilst traditionally they have roosted in caves they found great warm and dry residences in our lofts as we began building ourselves houses. And that worked really well until recent times when we began to seal up our lofts, and lag and insulate them so that we didn’t heat up the night sky and spend money unnecessarily. So it’s almost back to the caves and also churches that are still accessible to creatures bat sized.
Whilst I have to admit I’ve not yet had a report of a bat box that has been used, there’s one thing that’s for sure if we don’t put up batboxes they will never be used. And personally I love seeing bats flying around in my garden. I love watching them as they flit about in a most unbird like way, but maybe that’s because they are not birds. The only mammal that flies.
Bat boxes are the ones that have an opening at the bottom, the back of the entranced is ridged for them to land on a grip. They then scurry up into the living quarters. A bat box should be placed in a sheltered spot with good access, at least 5m above the ground and facing south.
And hedgehog boxes, there are many types of hedgehog box out there, some are designed to go underground, some rest on it, some are dual purpose examples of garden furniture, they can be incorporated into decking or garden seating depending upon the space you have available and the focus for your garden. Possibly the most important feature of a hedgehog box is the entrance though, we have purchased many boxes and have had to enlarge the doorway. 10cm in width and height is a must, otherwise no matter how nice it is, your hedgehog box will remain unused. And if it is possible to have an entrance way with a door into another chamber then even better. After all a well positioned hedgehog box will be used as a permanent winter residence because hedgehogs hibernate. And hibernate fully rather than just have periods of prolonged torpor, or doziness. So somewhere out of the way and unlikely to be disturbed is pretty vital too.
You also need to think about whether a hedgehog can access you garden too. This is very important. Nowadays many can’t.
Rightly so, we have been making our gardens as secure as sensibly possible and also buying materials so that we don’t have to keep replacing posts and panels on our fences. So concrete posts and kick boards are becoming the norm in our gardens. Great for reducing costs and even major activities in our gardens, but rubbish if you are a hedgehog. Gardens are often inaccessible. We always try to encourage our clients to put in a 10cm square in the bottom of a kickboard on each side of their garden and also the gate if possible. Hedgehog numbers are lower these days, access to our gardens is one reason and hedgehogs need to be able to roam around for 1 – 2 km per night. The other reason is the ever larger numbers of badgers, but that another story.
Lastly, take a moment to think about the direction you make these homes face. We discussed bat boxes already, but for bird and hedgehog boxes we follow a different logic. So, avoid the north and east, the wind that blows from those directions in winter is cold. You know the cliché about the east wind, the lazy wind, it doesn’t go round you, it goes straight through you. Well exactly. Also avoid the south and west, they will just make you bake.
So, based on the need for sun and its ensuing warmth at the beginning of the day we always put bird boxes up facing south east, and thus also hedgehog boxes although they could face south too. I have read many explanations of why bird boxes should face in other directions, but every box we have put up has been used as far as I know.
Of course, there is one other factor that is vital for bird boxes, and bat boxes (if possible). Put them somewhere you can see them from somewhere you spend a lot of time. Watching an inhabitant using a home you’ve in stalled for them is the best reward going, never mind the ecological reasons or botanical reasons. They’re great; but enjoy the life you bring into your garden because after all that’s the main reason we encourage life to come into our lives.