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Nest Boxes for Desert Birds

Matts_box_photo_web_creditNest 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 heard reports of nest box successes and we are now asking people to try boxes and let us know if they work. Please join our experiment by hanging a nest box in your yard! We think we can help support hole-nesting birds in this way. Follow the instructions below.

For up-to-date information about this program contact Jonathan Horst at nestbox@tucsonaudubon.org or (520) 971-6238.

Learn more about Hole-nesting Species in our Area

There are more than ten hole-nesting species in the lowland areas in southeast Arizona. Read these info sheets about the hole-nesting species in the Tucson and Green Valley metro areas that we think are most likely to use boxes.

Sources of Nest Boxes

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Brown-crested Flycatcher (Kendall Kroesen)

Buy a box at the Tucson Audubon Nature Shops
Tucson Audubon’s University Blvd. Nature Shop has nest boxes produced 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.

Nest box assembly workshops (No workshops are scheduled at this time–check here for updates)
Build a nest box for your back yard in one of our workshops this fall. You will receive a kit for a warbler, flycatcher or screech-owl box and you (or you and your guest) will put it together with oversight from Tucson Audubon staff and volunteers. Prices are as follows:

  • Lucy’s Warbler (small box): $20 (members) $25 (non-members)
  • Flycatcher (medium box):    $25 (members) $30 (non-members)
  • Screech-Owl (large box):     $30 (members) $35 (non-members)

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.

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Brown-crested Flycatcher chicks (Sara Pike)

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, etc. We have not researched box designs for mountain birds in our area but typical designs for these species may work well. Again, check the Audubon Birdhouse Book, available at the Nature Shops.

Place the Box in your Yard

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Ash-throated Flycatcher box in a shady spot (Kendall Kroesen)

In all cases we believe boxes should be in as much shade as possible, especially afternoon shade.

American Kestrel: We now have kestrels nesting in a box at Tuscon Audubon’s Mason Center, and are currently monitoring the progress of the eggs therein. 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 above 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.

Ash-throated Flycatcher: Ash-throated Flycatchers will nest in boxes in the Sonoran Desert. We have heard of several successes and two of the people that have put out our nest box design have had Ash-throated Flycatchers build nests. One of these nests was placed on a pole 10 feet off the ground and one was in a tree 7 feet up. We believe they prefer minimal obstructions (like branches) in front of their nest hole.

Brown-crested Flycatcher: We believe 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 probably the same as for Ash-throated Flycatcher.

Lucy’s Warbler: We have heard of successes with Lucy’s Warbler nesting in holes in gourds and other small objects with holes in them. We are experimenting with gourds and with a small box design that successfully hosted a Lucy’s Warbler nest in Tucson. There is some indication that this warbler likes to see out of its 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. So we are also working on a second nest box design that is deeper.

Bewick’s Wren: We have only heard of one case of Bewick’s Wren nesting in a box, and we don’t have the specifications for that box. But they may be willing to nest in boxes similar to what Lucy’s Warbler wants. Please report to us if Bewick’s Wren nests in a box.

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 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 hope to do more in the 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.

Fun Stuff!

Background: Conservation * Action * Research 

Many Tucsonans will look to the skies this winter 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.

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.

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Tucson Audubon Society
300 E University Blvd. #120 Tucson, AZ 85705

Mason Center
3835 W Hardy Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85742

Paton Center for Hummingbirds
477 Pennsylvania Ave.
Patagonia, AZ 85624
520 415-6447