Nest Boxes for Desert Birds
Background: Conservation! Action! Research!
Many Tucsonans will look to the skies each year, searching for American Kestrels and other birds we know and love. What is the future for these local treasures? Learning that the Kestrel population has declined 80% across Arizona over the last 40 years is certainly not encouraging. The good news is that regular citizens like us can act to support Sonoran Desert birds right here in Tucson. Right now.
American Kestrels, Ash-throated Flycatchers, Lucy’s Warblers—and many other species—suffer from loss of habitat, especially in Arizona’s expanding urban centers. One conservation action that Tucson Audubon is exploring to offset this loss of habitat is providing nest boxes for cavity-nesting species like these. Look around Tucson and you’ll notice that few boxes are being offered to our birds. Together we can change this—starting in our own yards and neighborhoods. We can make Tucson an even more bird-friendly city.
Nest Boxes: An Experiment
Tucson Audubon is encouraging people to put up nest boxes in their yards. For a long time people believed that boxes get too hot in our desert environment. However, we have conducted a temperature study and received numerous reports of successful nest boxes in the desert Southwest. We are now asking people to install boxes in a responsible manner which we describe below, and report their observations. Please join our experiment by hanging a nest box in your yard! We believe we can help support cavity-nesting birds in this way! Follow the instructions below.
→ For up-to-date information about this program contact Olya Phillips at email@example.com
Learn more about Cavity-nesting Birds in our Area!
There are more than ten cavity-nesting bird species in the lowland areas of southeast Arizona. Read these info sheets about the cavity-nesting species in the Tucson and Green Valley metro areas that are most likely to use boxes.
- American Kestrel
- Western Screech-Owl
- Ash-throated Flycatcher
- Brown-crested Flycatcher
- Lucy’s Warbler
- Bewick’s Wren
- Barn Owls
Nest Boxes Sources
Buy a box at the Tucson Audubon Nature Shops
Tucson Audubon’s University Boulevard Nature Shop has nest boxes constructed by program staff and volunteers. Please visit the shop at 300 E. University Blvd. to see what is in stock, or call them at (520) 629-0510. More info about the Nature Shops here.
Do It Yourself
Here are suggested designs if you are a “do-it-yourselfer.” There are also good designs in the Audubon Birdhouse Book, available in the Tucson Audubon Nature Shops. After each of the three box design links below there is a box-specific info sheet you can download for that box.
- Box design for American Kestrel or Western Screech-Owl (info sheet)
- Box design for Ash-throated or Brown-crested Flycatcher (info sheet) also suitable for House and Bewick’s Wrens, Eastern and Western Bluebirds, and White-breasted Nuthatches
- Box design 1 for Lucy’s Warbler and Newest box design 2 for triangle box (info sheet)
- Box design and info sheet for Barn Owls
- Box design and info sheet for Native Solitary Bee Houses
Bluebird boxes: Bluebirds do not nest in the lowlands around Tucson or Green Valley, though the show up in parks sometimes in the winter. However, Western Bluebirds do nest in our local “sky island” mountains. In addition, the “Azure” or “Mexican” subspecies of the Eastern Bluebird nests in oak forests and grasslands in and around the Patagonia Mountains and historically in the grasslands near Sonoita and Elgin. If you live in one of those areas you are encouraged to try this nest box design for bluebirds. See the section below on “Win-Win for Azure Bluebirds and Arizona Vineyards.”
Southeast Arizona Mountain Birds: If you live in, or have a cabin in, any of the Sky Island Mountains of southeast Arizona there are likely to be many other birds that will nest in boxes, including woodpeckers, swallows, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens etc. A typical Bluebord Nestbox design satisfies the needs for many of these species. Again, check the Audubon Birdhouse Book, available at the Nature Shops.
Place the Box in your Yard
In all cases nest boxes should be in as much shade as possible, especially afternoon shade.
American Kestrel: We had kestrels nest in one of our boxes at Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center in 2016! We believe they like their box to be 10-20 off the ground in open country with no branches obstructing the area in front of their box.
Western Screech-Owl: Western Screech-Owls readily adopt nest boxes. To build a box for them, use the same plans as for the kestrel, except make the entry hole a three-inch circle rather than the oval shown there. Screech-owls are not too picky about placement of their boxes (sides of houses, in trees, etc.). Of course, shade is still a plus and open entry way is a must.
Ash-throated Flycatcher: Ash-throated Flycatchers will nest in boxes in the Sonoran Desert. We have had them successfully nest as low as 4 feet above ground and as high as 10. They prefer minimal obstructions (like branches) in front of their nest hole.
Brown-crested Flycatcher: Brown-crested Flycatchers will likely use the same box as Ash-throated Flycatchers. If you are in a more densely-inhabited neighborhood you are more likely to have Brown-crested around; if you are on the edge of town you are more likely to have Ash-throated. The placement requirements are the same as for Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Lucy’s Warbler: We have multiple reports of success with Lucy’s Warbler nesting in gourds and other small decorative nest boxes. We are currently conducting an experiment with nest box designs to identify the most preferred box type to be put up in urban settings. There is some indication that this warbler likes to see out of the hole when it’s sitting on the nest, but that if the nest is too close to the hole it is threatened with predation from other birds reaching in. Lucy’s Warblers used to be called Mesquite Warblers due to their close feeding and nesting ties with that tree. Put your nestbox in or near a mesquite tree to accommodate these birds. So we have created different nest box designs to accommodate that need. If you are interested in helping with construction and/or monitoring of these experimental boxes please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bewick’s Wren: We have multiple reports of Bewick’s Wrens using bluebird boxes. You may find them in chaparral-covered hillsides, oak woodlands, mixed evergreen forests, desert scrub, stands of prickly pear and other cacti, as well as mesquite and century plant. Will nest as low as 4 feet off the ground.
Native Solitary Bees: Native solitary bees are not honeybees and they are not Africanized “killer” bees. Instead, they are bees native to our area that live a solitary existence, only meeting others of their species when they mate. They don’t live together in hives and don’t have a queen to protect. So they are much less likely to sting. They play an important role in pollination of native plants and crops. We can help them by building or purchasing a bee box for them to lay eggs.
Monitor your Nest Box
We encourage you to let us know if birds use your box. If a nest is started, please register it at www.nestwatch.org and follow the instructions in the following monitoring document, which will share your data with Tucson Audubon. Click here for nest box monitoring instructions!
Win-Win for Azure Bluebirds and Arizona Vineyards
In partnership with the North American Bluebird Society, University of Arizona, Sonoita Wine Guild and several other organizations, Tucson Audubon has launched an Azure Bluebird conservation project. Azure Bluebirds are a subspecies of the Eastern Bluebird, sometimes also referred to as the “Mexican” subspecies. As of late spring 2015 we have installed 56 nest boxes in the vineyards of the Sonoita and Elgin grasslands (southeast of Tucson). We have also started a nestbox preference study in 2017 where we installed 80 boxes in Canelo Hills and Patagonia Mountains. Though breeding in the grasslands is historically documented for Azures, eBird and first-hand accounts reveal that the breeding range and population numbers have decreased. Research states lack of adequate nesting cavities to be the population’s primary limiting factor.
We need your help! Teams of nest box builders and monitors will be crucial to success. Volunteer to be a part of this effort. Learn more.
- May 2018 video of Lucy’s Warbler nesting in one of the boxes in our experiment
- July 2015 video of Brown-crested Flycatchers in a nest box
- April 2015 video of Ash-throated Flycatcher chicks in a nest box
- Sara Pike’s video of Ash-throated Flycatchers and nest box
- Kendall and Keith talk about nest boxes on AZ Illustrated
Volunteer for Nest Box Pilot Program
Contact us to find out how you can help the Nest Boxes for Urban Birds Pilot Project at this time.
Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120 Tucson, AZ 85705
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742
Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624