If you're feeling the effects of the winter blues and wishing you could get out into the garden more, then why not participate in this year's National Nest Box Week and provide a home for garden birds over the coming months?
Organised by the British Trust for Ornithology, it takes place from 14th to 21st February in 2015 and encourages everyone who has the space to provide a haven for our feathered friends.
With natural habitats such as trees and hedgerows being lost to development every year, nest boxes can represent an essential place for species including sparrows, Blue Tits and Robins to lay their eggs and raise chicks, so it's a worthy cause to get involved with. Indeed, over 60 species are known to use them.
However, don't feel you have to wait until Valentine's Day to go out and choose your site - weather permitting, you can get the job done now and start to eagerly await feathered prospectors in a few weeks' time.
Which nest box should I go for?
Don't worry if your garden is small and you only really have space for one box; it's better than nothing! However, try to put up two or three for different species if you can for maximum results. Think about targeting once common birds such as House Sparrows and Starlings that are in decline and so need your help in particular.
There are lots of nest box styles around, but look for those that have drainage holes, natural-looking designs and materials treated with safe preservatives. The entrance holes should also be at a height that doesn't allow predators to reach in and scoop chicks out.
Here at CJ Wildlife, all of our nest boxes meet the birds' requirements in terms of design, plus they are available in an array of designs and finishes to ensure they look great in your garden.
Blue, Marsh and Coal Tits need entrance holes of 25mm, Tree Sparrows, Great Tits and Pied Flycatchers prefer 28mm, while Starlings favour 45mm, to name just a few species, all of which we can cater for.
When should I put up my nest box?
As we mentioned, you can add nest boxes to your garden now, with any box put up before the end of February standing a good chance of being occupied this year. Many pairs of birds start looking for nest sites in the latter half of this month, so don't leave your box in its packaging until National Nest Box Week if you buy one now.
If you're lucky, you might even attract some birds to raise more than one brood in your box, as House Sparrows, Robins and many more will nest more than once during each year's breeding season.
Where should nest boxes be placed?
Birds need nest sites where they feel safe and sheltered, so place yours away from sites such as the top of fences that make life easy for predators, and protect from strong sunlight and prevailing winds and rain. For most of us that means facing somewhere between north, east and south east. As an added bonus the early morning sun will gently warm the box after a cold night.
Walls tend to be a better choice than trees since cats find it more difficult to scale them, but you can plant dense and prickly bushes around trees to deter them if you haven't got suitable walls. In terms of height, around 1.5 metres to 5.5 metres is ideal, with at least 3 metres recommended if your garden is frequented by cats.
Another good point is to avoid putting your boxes too close to feeding stations as the regular presence of other birds of the same species in their territory will make the parent birds focus on driving out competitors rather than feeding their young.
Don't forget to put your nest boxes somewhere you can appreciate the inhabitants either - although don't be tempted to go over and disturb them because it can cause the parents to desert their offspring. Either put in a specialist nest camera before they arrive or watch from a distance.
How do I maintain my nest boxes?
It's tempting to want to stuff your new nest boxes with potential nest material, but birds prefer to find their own. You can craftily help them out though, by putting things like dog hair and hay around the garden for them to 'find'. We also do a special organic nesting wool, which you can put in mesh feeders for birds to take.
Nest boxes will only need one cleaning session in the autumn, but be absolutely sure that any occupants have gone first. Never clean out nest boxes between 1st February and 31st July, as this is actually illegal and chicks might still be inside.
Just take the box down, scatter the contents and give it a rinse out using hot water to remove parasites - never use chemicals.
Hopefully, these tips should give you the best chance of attracting nesting birds in 2015, but don't be disappointed if it doesn't happen this year - our feathered friends can sometimes be cautious and they may give your boxes a go next time. Don't be tempted to take them down if there's no chicks either, as they can still provide vital shelter during bad weather and into next winter.
With any luck, your new boxes could ensure generations of birds return to your garden as a haven, meaning you're doing your bit to conserve Britain's wildlife well into the future.