When the “kids” come by Will and Beth Russell’s Sabino Canyon-area home, they like to hang out in the tree.
Sometimes they sit on top of a porch column or the blades of the patio ceiling fan.
Rambunctious climbers? Nope. Families of Western screech owls.
“We refer to them as the kids,” Will Russell says of the owls that have nested in the couple’s backyard for the last two years. “My wife would say, ‘The kids are back.’”
The native birds of prey started hanging out because of a nest box the couple inherited from neighbors who moved away. They put it 10 feet above the ground in a mesquite tree.
“After a really short period of time, lo and behold, there was an owl roosting,” says Will Russell. A second roosted on the block column that supports the roof.
The Russells have watched owlets emerge from the commercially made nesting box and perch on the column and the fan.
“It’s wonderful to have them hanging around all the time,” Russell says.
The Tucson Audubon Society hopes to repeat the Russells’ experience all over the city to save some species whose numbers are dwindling.
Nest Boxes for Urban Birds is a pilot project to encourage residents to put up houses for three species of birds and see if anyone takes up residence in them.
The nest boxes, which volunteers are assembling for the project, are meant to attract American kestrels, ash-throated flycatchers and Lucy’s warblers. They are among the 12 native bird species that nest in cavities such as saguaro holes.
“Cavity-nesting species have lost a lot of habitat,” says Keith Ashley, the project facilitator and a member of the Audubon group’s restoration crew.
Humans have taken saguaro stands where gilded flickers created the holes that these nesters use and cavity-ridden dead trees for urban development and farmland.
Fewer places to nest will drive away cavity-nesting birds, says Ashley.
Project organizers chose to build boxes for these three birds specifically because they’ve been known to accept them. They also attract the Western screech owl, brown-crested flycatcher and Bewick’s wren. But Ashley admits that they don’t know if any bird will use them.
“We (know of) all these people who have birds nesting in nest boxes,” he says, “so we know there is some interest on the birds’ part. We don’t know if it’s widespread. That’s part of what we’re experimenting to discover.”
One of the things the project hopes to figure out is how to make and locate nest boxes that can be comfortable for the birds.
The Sonoran Desert’s summer heat is a challenge for nest boxes, which can get too hot and dry for birds to reproduce. The project already is experimenting with ways to keep the box interiors cooler.
There are other factors, too. Maybe there still are enough suitable cavities in saguaros, which are temperature-controlled, that the birds would prefer. Maybe a successful nest box needs to be placed in just the right location.
Will Russell has some experience with that. Aside from the owl nesting box, he put up a box built specifically for wrens, which are about the same size as a Lucy’s warbler. The box was high on the north wall of the house.
After it appeared that the warblers rejected the box, the Russells anchored in a tree a years-old, 8-inch-tall gourd with a hole in it. Sure enough, the avid birders watched Lucy’s warblers use it.
“It was just a success and a source of amusement that they rejected our fancy box for an old gourd,” he says.
When spring comes, Russell plans to reposition the box into a tree to see if it attracts birds.
It’s people with that kind of patience and experimentation that Ashley hopes to recruit for the pilot project.
“Some people who put up nest boxes are not going to have birds nest in them right away or ever,” he says, “so people can’t be too attached to the outcome.”