Building a video-enabled nest box

A Better Birdhouse

We show you how to build a completely wired nest box that charts the movements of nesting birds and delivers photo images of hatchlings.

In Germany, the word for “starling box” brings to mind pesky electronic traffic control systems. These are the boxes next to roads that contain equipment for capturing images of cars driving over the speed limit. However, speeding is not the topic of this article. Instead, I present information on building a nest box for starlings and other local birds – all of whom are confronted with an ever-decreasing supply of suitable brooding habitat.

The model of the nest box presented here offers some significant extras over ready-made products. A camera monitors what goes on inside the box, and two photoelectric sensors transmit the movements of the birds during feeding. The results are then displayed on a website.

Preliminary Considerations

When working on a project like this you should first put together a plan to get an overview of the steps involved. The most important part of the project is the nest box itself. Then, you will need a suitable camera, and, of course, you will want to know what kind of bird has taken up residence in the box.

A project plan is also good to have in case problems arise. For example, I hung up a nest box but no birds came to inhabit it. This was because both wasps and birds were showing an interest in the box at the same time, thus making it impossible for either party to take up permanent residence.

Next, you will need to think about the photoelectric sensors. One sensor operating alone won't tell you whether there has been an entry or a departure from the box. Instead, you will need two sensors placed one in front of the other. A motion detector offers an additional option for use as a monitor. Software is needed to combine all of these components.

Nest Boxes

Before starting this project, you should learn something about starlings and other birds. If you want to watch birds that are nesting, they will need a birdhouse nearby, and you should be careful to choose a location that is not accessible to cats.

Numerous sets of instruction can be found on the Internet showing how to build a nest box. A simplified model was used for this project, and all of the parts were pre-cut at a local building supply store. The saws there had only a 90-degree angle cutting capability. As a result, I got the individual pieces for the house by cutting them from a plank of rough sawn wood that was 1.25 inches thick, 8 inches wide, and about 6.5 feet long (Figure 1).

Figure 1: This simple design served as the starting point for a nest box that has lasted for several generations of inhabitants.

The surface of rough sawn wood provides a variety of perching options for our feathered friends. This in turn makes it easier for the young to venture out of the nest box. After you have screwed all parts of the box together, you should cover the roof with roofing paper so that it is protected from rain. You can create a slant to the roof simply by hanging the finished nest box somewhat at an angle.

The entry hole to the nest box is cut with a simple keyhole saw. You should use clamps to keep the wood as stationary as possible to avoid having the saw become jammed. Then, you can cut one or two 6mm holes in the floor of the house to allow for drainage.

Starlings and other cavity-nesting birds need an enclosed nesting place that has only one entry hole. The size of this hole determines which birds will use the nest box for brooding (Table 1). The entry should not face the windward side (usually west). In the northern hemisphere, the entry hole should not face south for long periods of time because this potentially results in too much sun exposure. East or southeast appear to be the ideal directions from which to fly into the box.

Table 1

Diameter Size for Entry Hole

Type of Bird

Diameter (mm)



Blue tit


Crested tit


Marsh tit


Willow tit


Coal tit


Great titmouse




Tree sparrow


House sparrow


Pied flycatcher


If you would like to eat fruit from your own garden, you should probably choose a box that is sized for chickadees rather than starlings. Chickadees prefer to feed on insects, so they leave fruit alone. Moreover, a starling doesn't usually arrive by itself (Figure 2). You can find out more about bird life in your own area by going to websites that offer information about your local region [1].

Figure 2: The starling family is taking a bath today. The cold weather does not bother them at all.

Figure 3 shows a nest box that has been in place for several brooding seasons. It is old but still in good shape. However, it could use a technology update to bring it up to today's standards.

Figure 3: This nest box has been used for three years and now needs an update in technology.

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