As readers know I’m very keen on children noticing and appreciating nature. As we have so many wild birds where we live in rural West Sussex, I’m continually thinking of ways to make bird watching fun for them – like designing this Lego bird feeder. So I came up with a plan for them to paint some bird nest boxes. But is it bad for kids to paint nest boxes?
Although you can put up a nest box throughout the year, February is a great time to place one in your garden to attract breeding wild birds. National Nest Box Week (NNBW) in UK takes place each year from 14-21 February. You can find out more here.
Natural nest sites for birds such as holes in trees or old buildings are disappearing fast as gardens are ‘tidied’ and old houses are repaired. Taking part in NNBW gives you the chance to contribute to bird conservation whilst giving you the pleasure of observing any breeding birds that you attract to your nest box.” British Trust for Ornithology
I bought some nest boxes last year but we didn’t put them up at our last home. Two neighbour’s cats with hunting skills kept visiting us which made it hard to find a good spot. Another factor was that my twins Luce and Theo were rather indifferent about them. I brought it up again in the Autumn and had the same response. They preferred to play games on their computer.
Nest box in school playground (above)
When I suggested recently they each could paint one of the bird boxes, they were suddenly interested. They remembered the colourful bird boxes all around their playground at school in the Hamptons, NY, USA. I told them they should only paint some pictures on the natural wood rather than painting the whole box. They ignored me as they were having too much fun coming up with designs.
When I started researching about what paint we should use I kept finding forums and articles discussing whether it was wrong or right to paint bird nest boxes. In fact it’s now discouraged.
There are no conclusive studies that determine whether residual fumes from paint or pressure treatment can harm the birds. In the absence of evidence, we recommend using untreated, unpainted wood to construct boxes (cedar, white pine, and yellow pine are good rot-resistant choices).” Nestwatch
Nevertheless I decided to let them paint the bird boxes, using non-toxic water-based acrylic paints. My view is that it’s made them interested in our bird wildlife. Every day since we’ve put them up they’ve been checking whether any birds have decided to become residents. It’s also an excuse for a game of tag in the garden! They want to know whether we should put out any nesting material near the boxes to help them build the nests.
After I told them that it’s better not to paint boxes, they started pointing out to me ‘approved’ and painted bird boxes on sale in shops. They also noticed when we were out and about if there were any bird boxes in trees or houses. They even tried spotting natural bird nests high up in branches.
If you do paint a box then the advice is only the exterior – never the interior and avoid the entrance hole. An exception is if you live in a very hot climate where you might want to paint the nest box a lighter colour so that it doesn’t overheat.
It’s best to place them where they will be in the shade and sheltered from the wind. The RSPB has advice on siting a bird box here.
We didn’t use any varnish or such like as they could be harmful. Lead-paint is definitely not safe for birds. Some experts recommend that if you do paint them then you should do it in the Autumn so that any paint fumes have had time to dissipate over the winter. I’ve decided that next year we’ll replace these painted boxes in case the paint has started peeling. I would then explain again to Luce and Theo why it’s better to have non-painted wood nest boxes. But until then I’m hoping by them painting the boxes they’ll actually be interested in and want to learn more about wild birds and their breeding habits.
Update: The RSPB has warned that nest boxes should not be brightly coloured as the more inconspicuous to predators the better. You can read a list of their dos and dont’s here.
Yes, most bird groups recommend you shouldn’t paint nest boxes. However, I personally don’t think it’s bad for young children to do so if this introduces them to and encourages them to observe wildlife. Is that wrong? Feel free to disagree as I’m actually quite torn on this issue!