Cottage Q&A: How to clean out a nest box

A hand removing a nest from a nest box using a trowel By Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz/Shutterstock

What’s the procedure for cleaning out a bird nesting box? Is it always necessary?Lily Scott, via email

No, it’s not. “Some birds, such as house wrens, will clean out nest boxes themselves,” says Kerrie Wilcox of Birds Canada. “Others, such as bluebirds, will build on top of old nesting materials.” Bluebird don’t care! Still, a helping hand is…helpful. Some birds raise more than one brood per season; some are just really lazy housekeepers. “By the end of a nesting season, tree swallow nest boxes can get quite full,” says Wilcox. “Cleaning them out will create nesting space for the next season.”

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Wearing gloves and a dust mask, pull out the old material and discard it somewhere away from the box; small mammals will repurpose it. Use mild, soapy water and a scrub brush to clean the box, then rinse well with fresh water. “I wouldn’t recommend bleach or any harsh cleaners,” says Wilcox. The soap, combined with cold temperatures, should kill any remaining bacteria over the winter. If you don’t want non-bird critters squatting in the now-pristine, empty nest box, close it up until the spring.

This probably goes without saying, but don’t clean out a nest box until after the fledglings have left—fall is usually a safe bet.

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This article was originally published in the Sept./Oct. ’23 issue of Cottage Life.

Got a question for Cottage Q&A? Send it to answers@cottagelife.com.

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