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Spring Reflection: A birdhouse makes a home

Author and naturalist Helen Macdonald reflects on creating homes for nesting birds, and the joy she gets in return

I ordered them on the internet. This morning they arrived in two cardboard boxes packed with paper. Four rough brown bowls with truncated backs and tops pushed tight against right-angled plywood backings. Made from a mixture of concrete and wood fibre, each has a scoop cut out of the front. When they’re fitted under the eaves of my new house, I’m hoping those holes will be the point of entry for pairs of house martins, those delicate, orca-coloured migrant birds whose arrival from Africa is one of the milestones of north Palearctic springs. They can build their own nests, of course, made of a thousand or so beakfuls of mud collected from local puddles and pond-edges and carefully pushed together, one by one, to dry. Last year’s drought made their nest-building difficult, and with catastrophic declines in their flying-insect food, populations have been nose-diving year-on-year. I bought these nestboxes to help birds in trouble. But only partly.

In India a few years ago, I stayed in a hotel room that also held a pair of nesting laughing doves. The housekeeper put fresh newspaper on the floor each morning to catch the mess. They’d squeeze inside through a gap above the AC unit and fly to their nest with pattering wing-beats, and at night I’d watch their eyes blink closed as they fell asleep. It would have been less delightful if I’d been fearful of birds or allergic to them, but there seemed a grace and generosity to that quiet sharing of space that swelled my heart out of all proportion to the presence of birds in the room. It brought home to me how fiercely in Britain we are ridding our human spaces of everything that isn’t us. None of us want rats and cockroaches, but what of swifts? They need holes in eaves and under roof tiles to nest, and we’re increasingly blocking them up. Sparrows like ivy-covered walls and thickets of bushes, but they’re messy and no longer fashionable in gardens. And while it’s illegal to destroy active birds’ nests, developers have started netting trees and hedges to stop them from nesting at all. The recent furore about netted trees is testament that we still balk at extending our zone of control outside our gardens to things so obviously not ours.

On the web, you’ll find martin nestboxes in the category of “specialist” boxes, along with those for treecreepers, owls, swifts, dippers, grey wagtails and ducks. The kind you can buy in any garden centre or hardware store are far simpler: boxes with a round hole in the front for great tits and blue tits, and those with a half-open front for robins. These were the ones we put up in my childhood garden. We did it for the pleasure of having familiar birds raise a family in a home we’d supplied. I remember the curious thrill of seeing a prospecting great tit drop into the darkness of the box hung on the side of my house. It was a little flush of pride dangerously near possession.

One spring, my father built a backless nestbox and mounted it against the single glass window of our garden shed. Inside, a blackout curtain kept the nest dark. After school, my brother and I would creep inside, shut the door, lift the curtain and press our noses to the glass. What we saw was all secret: three inches of moss and feathers, and, pressed deep into it, the back of an incubating blue tit, so close we could see the rising and falling of its breathing, the tiny feathers around its beak lit with the light falling through the hole above. The nest fledged successfully; later that spring we’d sit on the lawn hearing the begging calls of blue tit fledglings and think: they’re ours.

I hesitate to say it, but nestboxes in gardens faintly remind me of the provision of worker’s cottages on landed estates. Indeed, one nestbox pioneer was the 19th-century eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton, who installed sand martin nest-pipes and other avian households at Walton Hall, his Yorkshire estate now famed as being perhaps Britain’s first nature reserve.

In Britain, the class system inflects nestboxes as it does everything else. You can buy boxes that resemble scale models of pubs or churches, ones with poems or flowers painted on the front, with tiny glued-on gates and picket fences. These are frowned upon by the gatekeepers of British nature appreciation, who recommend plain wooden ones. The RSPB explicitly warns against using decorative boxes in case their bright colours might attract predators, even though there’s no real evidence for this. Yes, metal boxes are a bad idea because they can overheat nestlings, but a handwritten “home sweet home” isn’t much of an issue when robins can and will nest happily in discarded teapots.

Like garden gnomes, decorative nestboxes fail to conform to the aesthetics of middle-class garden design. Making them cute and homely raises the spectre of anthropomorphism, something still anathema to bird protection organisations that, in their earliest days, battled for cultural capital by denying accusations of sentimentality and cleaving instead to hard ornithological science. In this view, nestboxes are supposed to be for the birds, not us. There’s a performative largesse to the utilitarian ugliness of plain nestboxes in gardens, whereas decorative ones bespeak delight for people too.

The birds don’t care, of course. And while my house martin nests aren’t colourful, I am all about the personal enjoyment I hope they will bring me. I bought them because I want the birds here. I want their submarine chirrups to fall through my open windows while the late spring evenings lengthen; want to watch their hawking flights to scoop flies from the burnished air. I want the mess, the drifting feathers, the small faces of youngsters peering down at me as I walk up to the front door. My house will be their house, frankly. I want them to feel at home.

Helen Macdonald is the author of “H is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special