Bluebird and Small Cavity Nester Conservation
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Preventing Nestbox Vandalism

CONTENTS: Accounts of vandalism; box closure; location, mounting and camouflage, box type, education, signage, enforcement and more information.

Quick Tips: To prevent vandalism, use a square (deck) or Phillips head screw to close boxes, do not place them in high-traffic public access areas, hang or mount them >15 feet high, camouflage them, educate neighbors and workers, and consider signage.
Vandalism on the bluebird trail. Photo by Bob N
Over a dozen boxes were smashed on this trail. An article in a local paper sparked a public outcry and reward. The teenage boys who did it were arrested, fined, and given 100 hours of community service apiece.

As of 2007, I had not had a box vandalized on my two rural trails, even though some of the boxes are on busy roads. (In 2007, I had a hanging box stolen on a new trail near a school.) Others have not been so lucky. Vandalism can be a serious problem, especially on urban trails. As incredible as it may seem, vandals have been known to:

  • remove eggs from nestboxes and smash them
  • light firecrackers or CO2 cartridges inside a box with birds nesting
  • remove nestlings from a box long before they are ready to fledge and leave them on a picnic table to bake in the sun
  • fill occupied boxes with rocks, food or drink items (which may attract predators), burning cigarette butts, shards of glass, or other trash, sometimes trapping birds inside by blocking the entrance hole
  • shoot at a box with a gun
  • throw rocks or spear-chucking rebar at hanging boxes
  • use a baseball bat to smash a box off a post
  • push boxes to the ground by bending the mounting pole
  • run over a box with a vehicle
  • smash a box with an axe
  • throw box in a pond
  • obliterate an occupied box with golf clubs after missing a shot
  • steal boxes
  • use boxes for drug dealing
  • leave doors open after observing the contents
  • place plastic trash bags over active boxes on a hot day.

In five seconds, one person can destroy a nestbox and next years' generation of bluebirds. Don't let these nitwits win. You must outwit them. Here are some tips from expert bluebird monitors on the Bluebird_Listserv who have had to deal with vandalism.

BOX CLOSURE: Make it hard for a passerby to open the nestbox

  • Phillips, Robertson and Hex head screwsSecure boxes with deck (SS) screws, which have a square (Robertson) or hexagonal recessed slot. It won't stop a baseball bat, but it will stop the average curious individual.
    • Drill a hole for the screw so the head is recessed into the wood, which makes it harder to mess with.
    • Be sure to bring the special square drive screwdriver or bit with you (available at hardware stores), and keep a spare in your car.
      • You can make your own screwdriver: take a 3" piece of dowel, drill it at midpoint (1.5") to receive the back of the bit (the part that fits into the chuck), glue the bit in, and paint the handle Day-Glo orange (so you can find it when you drop it in long grass.)
      • Screw closures work well with a door that is on a pivot nail. Basically you drive a small galvanized nail (7 penny) through the front board into the edge of one side board, about 8" up from the floor. You drive ONE other nail through the back of the board into the edge of the same side board, at the same height. Your box now has one moving wall. If you do it correctly, the side board will hinge (pivot) up from the bottom, exposing the inside of the box for monitoring.
  • The second best choice is to secure boxes with Phillips head screws.
  • Put lock-out tape around top opening boxes once a nest has a cup.
  • Don't put locks on boxes, as someone might try to take the roof off to see what valuables lie inside. A law enforcement colleague once told me "locks keep honest people out." Some trail monitors even think a Philips/square head screw can provoke children to damage a box.

LOCATION, MOUNTING AND CAMOFLAUGE: Put boxes out of harm's way or hide them from humans

  • Put boxes off the beaten track. Many vandals are lazy and prefer to bash something near their car and then drive off. Do not place boxes in public, high-access areas such as parking areas. Do not put them near road intersections, or dirt bike or ATV trails. Look at the surroundings - if there is food waste, beer cans, and cigarette boxes, people are congregating and perhaps looking for something to do or destroy.
  • Put boxes on private property, with permission of course. Most of my boxes are on other people's land. Discuss the location and other factors so there are no surprises. Show them photos of installations and talk about the reasons for the locations you chose.
  • On public walking trails, place boxes out of reach of small children.
  • Hang boxes completely out of reach (e.g., 15-18 feet high, e.g., in trees.) Hanging boxes are virtually invisible, don't pose an obstacle for golfers or mowers, and put boxes out of the way of sprinklers, bears, etc. Hanging boxes are ideal for urban areas. Trees also keep boxes shaded to protect precious contents from excessive heat. I did have a hanging box stolen from a climbable tree near a school.
    • For instructions, and pros and cons, see http:// home.earthlink.net/~lviolett/construction.html (includes photos of lifter pole set up) and http:// home.earthlink.net/~lviolett/conversion.html. It does take a few minutes to lower the box, check it and re-lift it.
    • Heavy-gauge wire, steel rods or steel straps can be bent into hanging hooks. If you use wire, make sure it's at least 9-gauge, high-carbon wire that won't straighten out under the weight of the box. Zinc-coated or galvanized steel wire will resist rusting. See the The Bluebird Monitor's Guide for further instructions.
    • If people are throwing rocks at hanging boxes, put them near cars or things where rocks will make resounding banging noises that might draw the attention of more law-abiding individuals.
  • Hide or camouflage boxes.
    • Do not paint or stain boxes. Or stain them a soft gray or drab light brown that helps them blend in with the surroundings.
    • Spray paint white PVC predator guards gray or camo green for the same reason.
    • For hanging boxes under thick tree canopies, paint the exterior with swirls of blue/cream/tan colors.
    • If you see loser-types staring at boxes before you start monitoring, start picking up trash or "collecting" pine cones until the watchers lose interest.
  • Golf courses:
    • Do not put boxes at tee off spots and near holes where tempers might flare over bad shots. Remember these people are carrying clubs!
    • Hanging boxes can be placed along a golf cart path so you can lug your lifter pole and zip along in a cart to monitor.
  • Replace stolen or broken boxes immediately - bluebirds need them. After replacing a box three times, vandals may grow bored.

BOX TYPE

  • Try Gilberston boxes, as would-be vandals may have a hard time figuring out how to open them. Unfortunately they may choose to yank up the whole system out of frustration.
  • Don't put up boxes that are too pretty or made of high quality lumber, as this could tempt theft.
  • For boxes at cemeteries or near churches, extend the backboard about 6" above the roof, and then cut it out to leave a cross.
  • For boxes that mount directly on a 1/2" metal conduit (like the Gilwood/Gilbertson) without hardware, consider adding a clamp or set screw to slow down removal. You can also put anti-seize or grease on the pole, which helps with climbing predators also.

EDUCATION: Help people understand what nestboxes are used for, to appreciate how important they are to cavity-nesters survival, and to get involved

Some people honestly don't know that birds use a nestbox to raise a family. Publicize the work you do on trails, and ask the community to become a part of what you do, and help them understand how important creating habitat and providing cavities for nesting birds is. See sample article written by Judy Mellin. Some other tools:

  • Make up cute flyers that encourage people to take pride in the birds produced on the trail. See samples.
    • Put them in a kiosk (ask the golf course/town to purchase) in public access buildings. Include a visual display (see ideas below) with photos and large text that is easily read from a distance.
      • Put up a few well-designed, professional looking posters at strategic locations (e.g., pro shop, locker room, bar, luncheon area) to get the idea across that the nestboxes are part of the club/organization. A life-sized nestbox photo or air-brushed nestbox graphic is a good eye-catcher. Include information that explains the purpose of the boxes, a contact name and telephone number, and maybe a request for volunteers.
      • On a billboard or freestanding display (put up once every month), show a picture or a series of photos, from board to finished trail. E.g., a shot of piled lumber (90 board feet at $150 + 15 hours of labor) to make 30 boxes, followed by how the poles and baffles are made and installed, plus a time frame for monitoring in your area and how long it takes every week, so people understand how much time and effort goes into the project. Then show a "life cycle" series with the time to build a nest, lay eggs, incubate, feed and raise the young and then weeks of post fledge care, so they can see the investment made by the birds themselves.
    • Hand deliver flyers to neighbors, to enlist an army of eyeballs and offer opportunities for conversations about and appreciation for birds and conservation.
  • Encourage people to "adopt" a box.
  • Encourage people who are regularly in the area to keep an eye on nestboxes for you.
  • "Brief" employees (e.g., at a golf course) who work in the immediate vicinity, or even better, befriend them. I have a trail at a local transfer station/closed landfill, and my best defense against intruders are the workers. Once my father-in-law came with me to help check some boxes, and I thought they were going to hog-tie him because they didn't realize we were together!
  • Offer to do a presentation (e.g., for golfers) at the beginning of nesting season, telling them what you're doing, why it's important to the birds and you, and share the results of your efforts.
  • Invite a camera crew from the local TV station to come out and witness a trail being monitored.
  • Ask the local paper or radio to do a story on the trail. Include information on successes and failures of a years' work on the trail, and try get others involved in the next generation of bluebirds.
  • Write a letter to the editor.
  • After vandalism, seek publicity, e.g., an article in a local paper with a photo of dead birds on the ground with a smashed box.
  • Leave a broken nestbox on a pole or a cross with a sign simply saying how many bluebirds died when that box was destroyed and the date. Include a before and after photo, with large enough print that can be read 15 feet away.
    • You might add "If you enjoy seeing birds while you play golf and wish to see these nestboxes replaced, please sign a petition at the clubhouse" (which will show managers and golfers who many people really do enjoy seeing birds while they wait for their turn or cart around.)
  • Put up a "sacrificial" box near a restroom or candy/coke machine, boat dock, or playground etc., that is made of inexpensive interior plywood. Mount it low (4 feet) on a solid post so children/curious adults can look in. Put an old chickadee nest or bluebird nest in the box, ideally with a plexiglas protector in front of it. Include a plastic landscape tag or laminated sign stapled on the box that explains what the nestbox is and who installed it, and invites them to look inside (with a pointer to the latch), and to watch for birds feeding their young at other boxes along the trail that should not be disturbed.
    • If you do get native birds nesting in high traffic areas, place another sacrificial box at child's eye level. You can leave a House Sparrow nest and eggs in there to see if people are stealing eggs.
  • Let people know that boxes are made and monitored by private volunteers, without any government funding. If people believe their tax dollars are being used, they might also believe they are entitled to take a few boxes home.

SIGNAGE: Put up warning signs or mark boxes to decrease the likelihood of pilferage

Some people are afraid of drawing attention to their boxes, or inviting miscreants to investigate or misbehave by giving them ideas, especially in areas near schools or playgrounds. They feel those bent on destruction will ignore or be encouraged by warnings. If you decide to try signage, here are some ideas:

  • On the side of the box or the pole, or on a plastic tag, post a running list of the date the box was checked, the occupying species, and number of eggs and babies. When people realize a box is being regularly monitored, they may respect the box more.
  • Write on the box (in permanent magic marker) "Monitored by [organization], Protected by Federal Law."
  • Copper tags used to be available from the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota. They read:

    BLUEBIRD NEST BOX
    TAMPERING VIOLATES FEDERAL LAW
    NOTICE: It is a Federal offense to molest or destroy any protected species of wildlife. THE EASTERN BLUEBIRD IS A PROTECTED SPECIES.

    • You could add: "There are persons watching for any acts of destruction who will immediately notify me of the location and identity of such perpetrators." (You can also include your name and telephone number.)
    • Put up a note: This box is under video surveillance - you are being watched."
    • You can make your own sign on heavy paper, laminate it (inexpensive laminators are available at Wal-Mart), and staple it to the front or side of the box. 4"x4" is probably a good size.
  • Put out flyers or signs on garden nature trails or billboard asking people not to disturb certain nestboxes when young are about to fledge (laminated.)
  • Get an inexpensive wood burning pen ($9) and burn messages on the inside and outside of the box with words along the lines of "Property of Nancy Hebb" or "Built by volunteers helping bluebirds." This may discourage someone inclined to steal a box for their own use, or alert parents when a child shows up with a purloined box.
  • Handwrite (using a waterproof Sharpie) "This bluebird nestbox built and donated by (boys name) of Scout Troop 101." When this was done in one 640 acre campground and hiking area, only 2 boxes disappeared over a 4 year period.
  • The Texas Bluebird Society has made up lovely blue and white signs that can be placed on the side of the box placed in a cemetery or elsewhere that say "This box donated in loving the memory of...."


ENFORCEMENT: Get the law involved.

  • Take pictures of damage for proof.
  • Alert local law enforcement. Ask them if they would be willing to follow up on the crime, or patrol the area periodically.
  • One trail monitor in Montana had problems with vandals smashing nestboxes. He wrote an article about it, and felt the public outrage over the incident did more to stop vandalism than anything else. People started sending in money for a reward fund/rebuilding the boxes. The boys were arrested, and tried as juveniles in Justice Court, although the judge told them the penalties would have been much more harsh if they were adults, and they would have gone to Federal Court. Each boy was fined $35.00 per box x 15 boxes, plus each was given 100 hours of community service. The boys contacted the monitor and ask to see him. They apologized, and agreed to build 50 boxes for the monitor. Figuring their labor in at $6.00 an hour, and $280 for the boxes they built, the total penalty came to $4780, or $318.67 per box.
  • If the perpetrators are identified, instead of prosecuting them, considering requesting that they come with you and help you check some boxes. Do it more as a treat than punishment. While they are with you, explain why cavity-nesting birds need help. Ask them to watch for feral cats. Spend about 10 minutes showing them eggs and talking about the birds, and explaining that these are mothers and fathers, and without them, the young will die (while suppressing the urge to choke the daylights out of the vandal.) You might mention that if anything else happens to the boxes, even if they get hit by lightning, you will send the police straight to their house.
    • This approach is potentially problematic. You are showing vandals where the rest of the goods are located and the trail could end up being destroyed overnight, putting the birds at greater risk. Whether this would work for you probably depends the individual and their motivation, human nature, the type of damage that occurred, the local culture, and you. I like to think that there are some kids out there that do this out of ignorance or lack of understanding, and this approach MIGHT make a difference for them.

SAMPLE ARTICLE

Help Save Some Very Wonderful Birds! By Judy Mellin

I am a volunteer with the Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards in Hoffman Estates. We are working to restore 600 acres of that forest preserve to woodland, wetland and grassland as it was before the settlers arrived. Illinois, the Prairie State, has only 7/100ths of 1% of native landscape left so the best hope of having something to leave for future generations is restoration.

I monitor a trail there with nine nestboxes. These boxes provide much needed nesting sites for a variety of species, mainly Eastern Bluebirds. On Saturday, I found that someone had opened the doors on boxes that were ready for the upcoming arrival of the bluebirds and made them un-usable. If the birds had arrived before I fixed the boxes, they might not have found nesting spots.

Please be aware that all migratory birds are protected by U.S. federal law and that interfering with these birds in any way can result in healthy fines - up to 6 months in jail and $15,000 in fines. Besides that, these birds are very vulnerable since we have eliminated most of their natural nesting sites as we have cleared small woodlots. Without these boxes and thousands of others across the country, we are in danger of losing all of these wonderful birds.

This is a plea to whoever is doing this: please come out to join us on one of our volunteer workdays. You can see what we are doing and why we are doing it. And I'll be happy to show you how valuable those boxes are to the health of many birds.

And we'd be happy to have those of you who had nothing to do with this vandalism join us too!

References and More Information:


None of us will be around forever! We need to continuously show others the miracle of nature and how they can help and make a difference "One Nestbox at a Time".
We often never know how and when we make a difference.

- Keith Kridler, Bluebird_L, 2004


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