Bird Watcher's General Store

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Removing Old Nests

Dear Bird Folks,

I have a question about birdhouse etiquette. I bought my first wren house a few weeks ago and I am wondering if the house should be left up year round. Also, should the old nest be cleaned out?

-Nanci, Litchfield, CT


Cool Name Nanci,

Pretty fanci spelling. I like it. You are probably surprised to learn that you suddenly live in “Litchfield,” but your note didn’t include the name of your town in Connecticut, so I took it upon myself to supply you with one. I chose Litchfield because I have an uppity aunt who lives there. If there ever was a town that worried about “birdhouse etiquette” it would be Litchfield, so that’s what I’m going with.

I have to tell you in advance, Nanci, that this could be one of those columns where, by the time you finish reading my answer, you may not know any more than you do now. In fact, you may be even totally confused by the end. But if you’ve read this column regularly, you are probably used to that by now.

Yes, you can leave your birdhouse out year round. There is nothing wrong with that. However (you are going to be seeing that word a lot), since Connecticut winters can be pretty nasty, the box may not last long if you don’t take it down in the fall. Avoiding the snow and ice will add years to the life of your birdhouse. Personally, I’d rather have people leave their boxes out all the time, because the faster a box wears out the better chance I have of selling them a new one.

I’m not the only one who wants you to leave your box out year round. Many birds huddle in old birdhouses to survive cold winter nights. However, you said that your box was for House Wrens. If your box was truly built for House Wrens, with the tiny 1″ opening, no other birds will be able to fit inside of it. Since House Wrens have pretty much migrated out of Connecticut for the winter, you might as well take your house down and save the wear and tear. All the other birds are too fat to use it. However, if you are the type who will forget to put it back out in the spring, then you should just leave it up and forget about it. How’s that for confusing clarity?

Should the old nests be cleaned out? Better take some aspirin before you read this answer Nanci. Yes, you definitely should clean them out, maybe. Old nests often harbor nasty mites and parasites that can be harmful to the next batch of baby birds. However, the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 makes it illegal to touch, harm or disturb any bird, egg or nest. Even old nests are protected. A few years ago a customer gave me his deceased father’s nest collection. (Business was slow that year and he must have thought we were a museum.) Like a bonehead I put the nests on display and within days the feds came in to tell me that I had 24 hours to remove the display and they weren’t kidding. I was forced to quickly make a huge batch of bird’s nest soup in order to dispose of the evidence.

Now you are thinking, “Huh, clean out the old nest even though it is against the law?” Yup, do it. And by the way, how’s your headache? The Migratory Bird Act does protect old nests, but that part of the act is more like those anti-ticket scalping laws. Nobody really pays attention to it. The purpose of the law was to protect active nests from collectors or from jerks who just didn’t like birds. So it’s okay, I’ve yet to hear about anyone who’s done hard time for cleaning out an old nest from a birdhouse.

Now the fun really begins. Old nests often contain tiny parasites that may be harmful to baby birds. It seems like a no brainier to recommend cleaning them out. A fresh, clean nest should be more appealing and better for the birds, or so you would think. But some studies suggest that the opposite is true. Old buggy nests may actually be safer for the baby birds. Why? Because the old parasites may eat the new parasites and the new parasites are the real problem. Whoa! Has your head exploded yet?

Most experts still lean towards keeping your boxes clean and actually I kind of do too. However, you would not be out-of-line or even called lazy if you skipped cleaning your birdhouses once in a while. If, after all of this, you still aren’t sure what to do, check with the Litchfield town hall, I’m sure they have an ordinance about it.