Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nest Boxes are “Go” – Squirrel is MIA

The conversion of my old bird roosting box to a squirrel box is finally completely complete. It’s one thing to finish the box itself; it’s quite another to iron-out all of the miscellaneous, but critical details, like how to mount the thing at a particular place in a specific tree, especially when the tree doesn’t have even one purely vertical limb. Also important, and thoroughly interrelated: providing access from the tree to the box’s entry hole. So, this week has seen me spend hours in the middle of a near freezing night standing on top of a ladder in a tree pondering how the heck to make the box hang vertically, and how to give the squirrel(s) a way in and out; going back forth from my workshop to the top of the ladder with yet another adjustment to a piece of scrap wood to try to pin down the mounting angle and geometry of the spacing plank that would have to be attached to the bottom of the box; cutting the final parts; getting at least two coats of exterior grade latex paint on every side of all the parts; touching-up the paint on the box itself; and so on.

The results can be seen below.

The height of the roosting box allowed it to contain many perches, which would be irrelevant to the squirrels, so the perches were removed, but it seemed a shame not to put all of that interior space to good use, so interior floors were added to divide the space into three stories. Holes in alternating sides of the rear corners of the floors allow movement between the stories. Similarly, access to the box is through a hole in the back-right corner of the box’s floor. I’m confident that climbing up into the box won’t bother the squirrels, but that it will deter the owls (if they’re going to nest somewhere it had better be in the camera-equipped box) and, hopefully, birds in general. It should also make it nearly impossible for raccoons or possums to reach into the box and grab a meal for themselves, especially when the would-be meal is occupying (or can quickly move to) one of the top two stories.

All of the holes in the front and sides of the box are actually windows. The two holes near the bottom of the front wall are leftovers from the box’s original design as a bird roosting box. Rather than plugging or ignoring them, I decided to turn them into windows, so a piece of acrylic is screwed to the inside, covering the holes. Small circles of painter’s tape have been applied to the center of the windows, in order to (I hope) tip-off approaching birds that those holes aren’t really holes. The three holes in the upper portion of the box are new. I added them to give the squirrels a good view (which experience has shown they like), and to let light into the upper chamber (and, by diffusion, into the middle chamber, too). Those are also covered with acrylic, and equipped with dots of painter’s tape.

In warm weather, the upper story may become unpleasantly hot. However, heating the air up there (which will flow up and out through a vent slot between the top of the front wall and the underside of the roof), should pull air up through the lower stories of the box, thereby moderating their temperatures.

If all of this seems like a bit much for one fox squirrel, it’s worth noting that I’ve known fox squirrel nests, in areas with rich supplies of food, to contain as many as five adults – presumably a matriarch, and a year (or more) of her fully grown children. The benefit of such an arrangement in cold weather is obvious. In warm or hot weather, they may disperse. I’ve never seen evidence of a female with pups sharing her nest, however. (Which is not to say that it doesn’t happen; my observations aren’t extensive.)

Anyway, it’s been a lot of work just to ease my guilt about evicting the fox squirrel from the owl box, but if a thing’s to be done, it ought to be done right.

And, having done all of that, this afternoon I set about the eviction/relocation. The first step was going to the local hardware store and buying a pair of welder’s gauntlets, since there was a very real possibility of having to directly handle the squirrel in the process of the transfer, and welder’s gauntlets are the toughest, widely available gloves that I know of. (If you’re trying this yourself, please be aware that I’m not claiming that welder’s gauntlets are sufficient to protect you against the claws and teeth of a distressed squirrel, I’m merely saying that I wasn’t willing to go up against those formidable weapons with lesser gloves.) The next step was bringing the owl box down, and positioning the opened squirrel box next to it. Then I opened the owl box, with the fox squirrel playing dead, as usual. I threw a towel over the top of the squirrel and the thick assembly of nesting material in which it was embedded, slid a sheet ¼" plywood under the nest materials, and then, with a hand held firmly over the towel, withdrew the entire nest, squirrel and all, deposited it in middle chamber of the squirrel box, and quickly closed the box. Success!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get all of the nest materials at once (the interior of the owl box is wider than its front opening), so I went back to check the remaining materials to make sure there weren’t any tiny pups stranded in it. What I found in those materials, however, was the fox squirrel I thought I’d just successfully transferred. Apparently, it snuck off to the side while I thought I was lifting it out with the (majority) of its nest. So, I tried again, this time with the squirrel definitely somewhere in my grasp, but squirming madly to escape … which it did in short order, vanishing toward the next nearest tree like a fur-bearing bullet.

So much for all of my efforts to reclaim the owl box without having to feel guilty about picking on a harmless (and thoroughly sensible) squirrel.


I hung the squirrel box in the tree, anyway, with its middle chamber still half full of the squirrel’s nest materials, and put a few peanuts in the bottom chamber, near the entry hole. Once the terror has subsided, perhaps those smells will convince the evicted squirrel that the new box is worth checking-out.

That just left me with the (now empty) screech owl box to clean-out. Even with the squirrel’s clean-up efforts, there was still a lot of mess leftover from the bee colony that took over the box in the spring. I didn’t think bees could attach their combs to glass (the interior ceiling of the owl box is a plate of glass so the camera in its attic can look down into the nest), which is why I assumed I wouldn’t have bee problems with this screech owl box. I was wrong on both counts.

Removing the last traces of comb from that plate of glass turned-out to be surprisingly difficult. Windex and paper towels were useless. A putty knife, an extra abrasive dish scrubbing pad, soap, and a lot of hot water turned-out to be required. Even after all that, and a final effort with the Windex, I still hadn’t managed to remove all traces of the comb. However, I had managed to improve matters dramatically, and to make the center portion of the glass—the area through which the camera looks, and its infrared LEDs illuminate—quite clean, and that’s good enough. Then there was a lot of scraping of the interior walls and floor, and cleaning the glass of the thermometer’s face, and the side camera compartment’s window, both of which cleaned-up with far less effort than had the glass ceiling. Finally, a fresh layer of pine shavings was deposited on the floor, and the box was closed-up, and returned to its perch in the tree. In the absence of owls, I may do some cleaning inside the side camera compartment in the future, but things are vastly improved, and, if the owls moved in tomorrow, I wouldn’t loose any sleep over skipping the additional cleaning.

So, while I still haven’t sorted-out any of the owl box’s computer interfaces, at least the box itself is ready to receive any local screech owls looking for a nest site.

Fingers crossed.


  1. Susan G.10:09 AM CST

    Fingers and toes crossed. I did laugh at your description of the fox squirrel escaping. I hate squirrels but the image of your face in my mind, made me laugh with delight. Thanks and here's hoping to see an Owl soon, in your lovely box, of course.

  2. Your work is appreciated and I awiat with anticipation the arrival of our feathered friends.

    Beeshave always been my bigest obstacle to owls in my houses.I like bees as well though.

  3. Alison in Indiana10:00 AM CST

    I like bees, too, as providers of honey, but as drivers-away of owls, ixnay.
    Many thanks for your efforts and amusing recounting thereof. My guess is that there are no pups, otherwise the squirrel would have been looking for them in the proper box (your tactics preventing much human odor getting on them - mammels being sensitive to such things, as birds generally are not).
    I will, for variety, press my thumbs for owlbox success. That is the Austrian equivalent of crossing fingers.

  4. This is excellent news! Thanks so much for doing this again. I look forward to following the adventures of a new Eastern Screech Owl family. My fingers are crossed too.

  5. Alison in Indiana6:45 PM CST

    I have been looking at the owlcam archives. There have been eggs as early as Jan. 31st and as late as the third week of March. So any time now, we can expect to read that an owl has been inspecting the box ;-) (Hope springs eternal)

  6. Anonymous6:23 PM CST

    Personally, I love squirrels, so I appreciate the fact that you take them into consideration during this process. I am sooo looking forward to your new owl season. Good luck!

  7. I suuuuuure would love to see a fresh crop of deranged owlets mugging for the camera...appreciate all the work, Chris!