Habitat Management for Songbirds

The management of habitat for non-game wildlife like songbirds can be very rewarding. My management practices are guided by some basic principles that help keep me pointed in the right direction: copy nature, enhance biodiversity, and plan for sustainable, cost-effective activities.

One such plan involves a few acres where I’m attempting to arrest and reverse the natural succession of pasture to fallow field to forest.  The site was last grazed about 25 years ago and is now a mixture of herbaceous vegetation, woody shrubs and young trees. My management goals are to 1-arrest succession on the majority of the fallow field, keeping it in the brushy, shrub stage; 2-reverse succession on small areas within the shrub habitat, creating herbaceous, meadow-like openings; and 3-control invasive plant species. Habitat boundaries are irregular and lack clear definition to simulate nature. Mechanical control is favored over other methods. Songbird nest boxes were installed on posts in the herbaceous openings (six in all).


Brush-hogging to create an herbaceous opening; nest box on left

These types of habitats are preferred by dozens of wildlife species, from butterflies to deer, and have provided me with countless hours of recreation, nature study and photographic opportunities.


Part of a family group of White-tailed Deer using an herbaceous opening soon after it was created

This post features a group of birds with broad appeal and interest that are benefiting from my management plan: cavity-nesting songbirds that use artificial nest boxes. The most common nest box in the landscape, one designed for the Eastern Bluebird, was my pattern of choice. I was hoping for bluebirds but was also aware of the multi-use value of nest boxes, especially where natural cavities in trees are limiting. In open habitats, nest boxes are commonly occupied by House Wrens and Tree Swallows, and on rare occasions the Great Crested Flycatcher.


House Wren

House Wrens can be a bit of a nuisance, stuffing every nest box in sight with twigs, floor to ceiling, to discourage the competition (my father once counted over 700 twigs in a dummy nest – a considerable amount of work – for both parties!)


House Wren

Tree Swallows in early April, resting, preening, and scouting nest boxes (5)











Great Crested Flycatchers first claimed a meadow nest box three years ago. I knew that they were cavity nesters, but had never seen them occupy a nest box. The entrance hole to this box had been enlarged slightly by a Red Squirrel, perhaps making it more suitable for the flycatchers.

Great Crested Flycatchers, nest building (4)









All of the featured species consume large quantities of insects throughout the spring and summer months, contributing to ecosystem stability and biodiversity.


Great Crested Flycatcher with food for its young

Eastern Bluebirds prefer open habitats with low, herbaceous plant cover, such as pastures and large lawns. Without periodic maintenance, fallow fields eventually lose these characteristics and the bluebirds inhabitants as well


One of a winter (January) flock of 8 – 10 bluebirds, an unusual sighting.

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds that claimed a nest box on one of the recently cleared openings; resting, feeding, nest building, and guarding the nest box.



Eastern Bluebird, male



Eastern Bluebird, male



Eastern Bluebird, female



Eastern Bluebird, female, nest building


Eastern Bluebird, male, guarding the nest box as Tree Swallows swarmed in to investigate.

I’m obviously an advocate of artificial nest boxes for wildlife, particularly when a need is identified. However, I also feel that natural tree cavities should be the highest priority. I  locate and protect den trees when working in the woods and sometimes create potential den or nest trees if natural cavities are lacking. 

All photos by NB Hunter


6 thoughts on “Habitat Management for Songbirds

    • Thanks! This is one of my favorite topics, something that I’ve wanted to post for some time now. My system isn’t really geared for small critters at a distance, so it took awhile to accumulate enough acceptable photos to tell the whole story. And I’m still at it, hoping to capture more images of these guys over the next month or so.

  1. Nick, I really loved the pictures and enjoyed the comentary too. Part of what Nancy used to do was create nests for woodpeckers.

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