Few people would be excited about cleaning out once-occupied bird boxes.
But to retired biologist Dianne Wittner, it’s as fascinating as opening a surprise Christmas gift.
“I can’t wait to discover what I’m going to find inside,” laughs Wittner. “Sometimes it’s only a wasp nest, maybe unhatched eggs, double nests or little skeletons.”
Wittner, who grew up in the Kamloops/Shuswap area, spent 30 years as director of a wildlife hospital just outside Calgary. She returned “home” three-and-a-half years ago and became a regular visitor to Salmon Arm’s foreshore trail.
“As I walked along, I noticed the bird boxes were in a state of disrepair and were not being cleaned out,” she says, noting she maintained many bird boxes on her Alberta property and became a licensed bird bander. “I asked a member of the naturalist club if anyone would mind if I took on the existing bird boxes.”
In September 2016, Wittner went along the foreshore trail armed with a ladder, tools, gloves, mask and protective glasses to clean the boxes out and discovered many were in very poor condition.
Bird boxes that are not maintained can be a death trap for birds as old nesting material can harbour bacteria and parasites and are not likely to be used again.
“By the time I was finished, there were somewhere between 10 and 12 salvageable bird boxes,” says Wittner, who is a member of Shuswap Naturalists Club and on the board of the Salmon Arm Bay Nature Enhancement Society (SABNES).
SABNES was undertaking a large hummock-building project in 2017 during which several posts were installed for bat and bird boxes for ducks and songbirds.
“In 2017, we noticed there was pretty fierce competition among the birds and an increase in the number of boxes that were occupied and fledged,” Wittner says.
“Last year we had 29 successfully fledged swallow nests and saw a lot of competition,” says Wittner who took a bigger ladder to clean out the boxes, but is still needs help moving the duck boxes.
Later in the fall, Patrick Shea at Makerspace approached Roger Beardmore with an offer to build 50 new bird boxes
“It became a contagious thing; we met with Patrick and Tom Briginshaw, (executive director of the Salmon Arm Innovation Centre and Shuswap Makerspace) put together a budget,” Wittner says, noting she provided the design of the best bird box in Canada. “We did some fundraising, Patrick got wood donated, volunteers cut up pieces, Ceren Caner’s class at the Outdoor School helped put the boxes together then Nan Prittie, Roger and I helped paint them.”
Wittner and Beardmore then spent three days digging post holes for the new bird boxes.
“We were really lucky; Rona not only gave us paint and a discount on posts, they delivered them along the trail as far as the truck could go and Warner Rentals gave us an auger free for two days.”
With only a few hours of volunteer help, Wittner and Beardmore installed 35 new posts in three days, not only on the foreshore trail but at Peter Jannink Park as well.
Of the 50 new boxes, some went on trees, five or six were replacements and two were kept as replacement spares in case there is vandalism as there was to four bird boxes last year. Another one was missing this spring.
For anyone interested in putting up bird boxes themselves, Wittner stresses the need for using good quality ones only.
They need proper ventilation, drainage, proper distance of the entrance hole from the bottom of the bird box and an inset roof so there’s no leakage.
“There’s a lot of little details people wouldn’t know of until they see the disaster when it’s not done right,” she says.
Wittner says the boxes are being monitored and data gathered will be used to help increase the efficacy of the program.