Bird boxes – not the solution to wild bird decline

John McKeon

As we welcome a long –awaited spring, hedge-laying trainer John McKeon reflects on our birds and suggests that, in general, growing more native trees and hedges is much better for most birds than erecting nest boxes.

As the bird nest season begins I recall the poem ‘Lament for Thomas McDonagh’ by Francis Ledwidge. It was written over one hundred years ago. The opening verses are:

He shall not hear the bittern cry
In the wild sky, where he is lain,
Nor voices of the sweeter birds
Above the wailing of the rain.

Nor shall he know when loud March blows
Thro’ slanting snows her fanfare shrill,
Blowing to flame the golden cup
Of many an upset daffodil.

The second verse is, in my view, the most evocative description of March weather ever written in prose or poetry. Sadly McDonagh would not hear the bittern cry again, as he was executed in 1916. One hundred years later, nobody can hear the bittern in Ireland because it is extinct here. The Corncrake and Curlew are headed for the same fate and are almost extinct.

Many other breeds of bird are in decline. As a solution to this decline, some encourage the erection of nest boxes. Have birds lost their ability to build their own nests? No they haven’t – they are past masters at building. So why are they in decline and not building nests. The principal reasons are that their habitat and food sources have been removed. Hedge removal and the poor quality of the remaining hedges combined with changing farm practices such as the loss of mixed crop farming, lack of diversity in grasses, earlier cutting of grass / meadows all contribute to this decline. For some birds, the lack of household vegetable gardens and orchards are also a problem.

A 2017 study in England found that, for many birds, nest boxes are no substitute for tree cavities. Farmers in Ireland now get grants to install bird boxes under environmental schemes. Most of the boxes I have seen are made from soft wood and will rot in a few years. There are more durable ones available. It is recommended that bird boxes be cleaned out every year – but will this happen? As a farmer I won’t be putting up nest boxes. I will leave it to the experts.

Cutting down trees to make nest boxes and nailing them to other trees is not for me. To help wildlife, I will be planting trees and hedges and improving poor quality hedges. There may be a place for bird boxes around schools and dwelling houses in order to introduce children to wildlife. The birds may have to be fed because their food habitat is likely to be poor. Growing vegetables, flowers, shrubs and leave an area of grass uncut. Avoid using energy guzzling lawn mowers, leaf blowers and power washers.

In another one hundred years, I wonder what wildlife species will have gone extinct and what will people then be saying about the actions of our generation to cause the extinction. Bird boxes are not the solution now – and won’t be then.

Ledwidge’s lament concludes with the following verse:

But when the dark cow leaves the moor,
And pastures poor with greedy weeds,
Perhaps he’ll hear her low at morn
Lifting her horn in pleasant meads.

Note: It is an offence to ‘cut, grub, burn or otherwise destroy hedgerows on uncultivated land during the nesting season from 1 March to 31 August, subject to certain exceptions’. The Irish Wildlife Trust, Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce and the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland say that if laws are passed to extend the hedge-cutting season, it will have a serious adverse impact on a range of wildlife species and habitats.

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