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How to… give a bird a home in your roof


You can help a wide variety birds by allowing them to nest around your home, says Richard James from the RSPB 

Swifts, swallows, house sparrows, starlings and house martins all take advantage of the safety and shelter our houses and farm buildings can provide.


Swifts, swallows and martins return to the UK each spring after spending the winter in Africa. The sound of swifts’ screaming calls as they arrive on our shores is a sure sign summer is nearly here. Traditional cave nesters, they now almost all make their home in barns and house roofs, usually under the eaves, or gaining access to the inside of the roof through gaps in the tiles, or between the walls and the tiles. They are very faithful to their nest sites and can struggle to find alternatives, especially since their stay in the UK is relatively short.

House martins are another summer visitor to the UK. Like swifts and swallows, they rarely nest anywhere other than on buildings. They make their muddy domes under the eaves, tucked away from the elements. They will often nest together in colonies and can have two or three broods throughout the spring and summer. 

 Starlings and house sparrows, which have been in severe decline over the past few years, will also take advantage of gaps in roofs. These familiar birds could be in the eaves or under a roof tile. They can nest from March right through to September. When the chicks fledge they can be seen for some time around the garden being fed by their parents and learning how to behave like starlings.

Where possible, for all these birds it is best to leave existing nest holes alone and work around them when carrying out repairs and renovations. If this is not possible then the best way to help is to incorporate a nest site into the renovation in exactly the same location as the original.

In extensions and newly built houses, as well as in walls that are being repaired, this could be done by deliberately creating a hole and installing an internal nestbox. These are particularly important for swifts because they are less likely to use external boxes than other birds. Special ‘swift bricks’ can be purchased and installed during construction to provide a ready-made home for these summer visitors.

House sparrows, house martins and starlings like to nest in loose colonies and may choose the outside of the roof in a nest box if they cannot get inside. These nest boxes are best placed high up under the eaves on a north or east facing wall where they will be sheltered from the elements.

Nesting birds are protected by law so it is important not to block up their nests while they are in active use. Most birds will have finished nesting by September and won’t start again until March so this gives plenty of time to get any essential renovation work done before the birds return.