When To Clean Out Bird Houses Each Year (And When Not To)

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Birdhouses can be fun. You find the perfect spot to put them and your winged neighbors build their nests inside and raise their families. You watch them all season and pride yourself on contributing to a little piece of the wildlife world. Then they leave you with an old, dirty, sticky box when they’re done. This leaves you wondering if you should do something about this mess or if the birds will take care of it. Is it really necessary? And if it is, how do I know when to clean out bird houses?

This article will teach you the in’s and out’s of birdhouses—when and if you need to clean them, when birds will occupy them, and what species will occupy them. This article will be especially helpful for you if you have birdhouses and want to make sure they are in tip top shape to keep your pals coming back, or if you’re an aspiring bird landlord and want to attract certain species and ensure your boxes are up to their standards!

When to clean out bird houses

There are a few times a year that you will want to deep clean bird boxes: right after breeding season and right before breeding season. Generally, this means in September and early March. This involves removing all nesting material and soaking and scrubbing the house with a bleach solution of one part bleach and nine parts water.

We attracted a pair of Bluebirds with this cedar Bluebird house within 2 days!

Nest boxes can also be cleaned throughout the breeding season if you are paying close attention to the family inside. If your box is hosting a family, you can scrub the inside after the babies have fledged. Simply take the old nest out, clean the box, and throw the dirty nest away. If the nest appears clean and unused, you can put it back in the box. It may save the next family time by not having to build a new nest. However, if the next family doesn’t think it’s good enough, they may clean it out themselves and start over.

These methods can be used no matter what species your boxes are hosting.

Are you supposed to clean out birdhouses each year?

Birdhouses should absolutely be deep cleaned at the start and end of breeding season. This helps control the ectoparasites, especially if rodents take up the box over the winter months. It also helps with dust, dander, and old feathers.

Cleaning between broods is also helpful in controlling ectoparasites. Birds will typically nest in one spot for the first brood, and then build a new nest somewhere else for the next. If a box is left unsanitized, the next family could suffer from infestation or choose not to nest in the box at all.

image: Pixabay.com

Some species, such as wrens, do a good job of keeping their homes clean and removing parasites, but others are not on top of their cleaning schedule (ahem, I’m looking at you, bluebirds.) So, to keep the ectoparasites, dander, and dust at a minimum, cleaning your boxes between broods is has its benefits.

However, if you don’t feel comfortable getting rid of nests because you aren’t sure if the family is still using it and don’t want to risk throwing out their bed, that’s okay. It’s really not the end of the world if nests are left inside throughout the season, just as long as everything gets cleaned up at the end.

Do birds clean out birdhouses?

In short, some do and some don’t.

Wrens are known for meticulously cleaning out their bird boxes or carefully renovating an old nest. Chickadees enthusiastically throw out old nesting material when they’ve picked their box. Bluebirds, however will build a new nest over an old one and continuously pile more nests on top of those.

When do birds nest in birdhouses?

Depending on these species, your birdhouses may be used all year long!

The most common time for nesting is during the breeding season, roughly March-August, but it’s not uncommon for year-round species to occupy boxes during the winter months.

Some species, such as owls may begin nesting as early as December to prepare for breeding. Some other species, such as chickadees and woodpeckers may also spend winter time in birdhouses to keep warm.

This is just another reason to make sure you get your houses cleaned out soon after breeding season ends, so your winter tenants have a nice, clean place to stay!

image: Pixabay.com

What time of day do birds build nests?

Birds spend the daytime building their nests and rest at night. Even nocturnal cavity dwellers, such as owls won’t build nests at night since they don’t build their own nests. (If you’re hoping to house woodpeckers or owls, throw some wood chips in the nest box for them so they have a little something to get comfy in.)

It can be really fun watching bluebirds or swallows darting in and out of their houses with bills full of nesting material. Just don’t be too tempted to bother them while they’re building away!

How long does it take for birds to find a birdhouse?

Not all birds use birdhouses. The species nesting in your boxes are known as cavity dwellers, and since natural cavities are not always in abundance, these birds look to nest boxes to make up for it.

Because of the scarcity of natural cavities, bird boxes will be found and claimed pretty quickly. Especially if the conditions are right:

  • The entrance holes and floor are the right size.
  • It’s the right height off the ground.
  • It’s not surrounded by a thousand other boxes.

If you have bird boxes that don’t seem to be getting any visitors, check these parameters and adjust them if necessary.

image: Pixabay.com

How long does it take for a bird to build a nest?

Nest building can go quickly or slowly, depending on a number of factors. These can include food availability, competition, cooperation, and nest complexity. These factors can make nest building take anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks.

If there is less food available, birds will pause nest building to go find food. Tree swallows will abandon nests for days and travel up to 20 miles to find food! Another factor—competition—can affect the time it takes for nests to get completed. If a bird is busy fending off competitors, they are dedicating less time to nest building.

On the other side of the coin, if males and females both partake in nest building, it can get done so much quicker—like 1-2 days for House sparrows. That’s fast!

Nest complexity also affects how quickly they get built. Obviously, more complex nests require a little more time to build and the simple ones, not so much.

What birds use birdhouses?

Bluebirds – Eastern, Western, Mountain

eastern bluebird in house

Entrance hole: 1 1/2″
Height: 7″
Floor: 4″x4″

We attracted a pair of Bluebirds with this cedar Bluebird house within 2 days!

 

Wrens – Carolina, House, Bewick’s

House wren with a spider meal (Image: birdfeederhub.com)

Entrance hole: 1 3/8″
Height: 7″
Floor: 4″x4″

Chickadees – Black-capped, Carolina, Mountain, Chestnut-backed

Image: anne773 | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 1 1/8″
Height: 9″
Floor: 4″x4″

Woodpeckers

There are at least 17 species of Woodpeckers in North America.

Downy Woodpecker

Image: Naturelady | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 1 3/8″
Height: 9″
Floor: 4″x4″

Hairy Woodpecker

Image: JackBulmer | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 2″
Height: 12″
Floor: 6″x6″

Red-headed Woodpecker

Image: Larysa Johnston | publicdomainpictures.net

Entrance hole: 2″
Height: 12″
Floor: 6″x6″

Flickers

Image credit: birdfeederhub

Entrance hole: 2 1/2″
Height: 17″
Floor: 7×7″

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Image: pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 2 1/2″
Height: 14″
Floor: 6″x6″

Pileated Woodpecker

image: Pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 4″
Height: 24″
Floor: 10″x10″

Swallows – Tree, Violet-green

Entrance hole: 1 1/2″
Height: 7″
Floor: 5″x5″

Owls 

Barred Owl

Image: OLID56 | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 8″
Height: 26″
Floor: 14″x14″

Screech Owl

photo by: Shravans14 | CC 4.0

Entrance hole: 3″
Height: 16″
Floor: 8″x8″

Barn Owl

image: Mark Gunn | Flickr | Barn Owlet | CC 2.0

Entrance hole: 4″
Height: 16″
Floor: 12″x22″

Check out these interesting facts about Barn Owls!

Saw-whet Owl

Image: CTolman | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 2 1/2″
Height: 16″
Floor: 7″x7″

Hawk Owl

Image: Sorbyphoto | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 2″
Height: 14″
Floor: 6″x6″

American Kestrel

Image: bemtec | pixabay.com

Entrance hole: 3″
Height: 16″
Floor: 8″x8″

Wood Duck

image: Danielle Brigida | Flickr | CC 2.0

Entrance hole: 4″
Height: 22″
Floor: 12″x12″

Learn some cool facts about Wood Ducks here!


Bird house do’s and don’ts

If you’re going to be a bird landlord, keep a few things in mind:

Do:

  • Build your own birdhouses, but make sure to research the proper dimensions for whichever species you’re trying to attract.
  • Hang them on poles when possible, not trees. It’s less likely predators will get to them.
  • Put wood chips in your boxes. This is helpful to birds who don’t build nests like owls and woodpeckers.
  • Clean your boxes.
  • Kick out invasive species if they steal your boxes. This includes starlings and house sparrows.
  • Check on your tenants. If you build your boxes and allow the back panel or top to open to expose a clear panel, you can safely observe the feathered cuties inside. You might learn something cool!
image: Pixabay.com

Don’t:

  • Barge in all the time. Limit your observation time so you don’t disturb them too much.
  • Stress them out by touching or using flash photography. No one likes that.
  • Hang a thousand boxes next to each other. Everyone likes to have their space.
  • Give up. If you can’t seem to get birds in your boxes, evaluate what you have and see if there’s anything putting them off. Is the hole too big? Are there drainage and ventilation holes? Did you put it up early enough in the season? How high is it off the ground? Are the birds even in your area? Try to attract birds with a feeder or two and then see if they’ll visit the boxes.

Wrap up

Now that you know the in’s and out’s of birdhouses, you can safely and happily house your feathered neighbors!

About Jesse

Jesse enjoys bird watching and feeding birds in his backyard, learning about the different species, and sharing his knowledge and experiences.

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