Cavity Nesting Birds

Cavity Nesting Birds

Ohio is home to more than two dozen native species of cavity-nesting birds, covering multiple taxonomic groups, including waterfowl, raptors, woodpeckers, and songbirds. Artificial nest boxes have been an important conservation tool for many species, and have been a crucial component in some population increases. For example, many people probably take the loquacious Tree Swallow for granted, but prior to the widespread construction of reservoirs through the mid-1900s, and the increasingly abundant “bluebird” boxes from enthusiastic nest box caretakers, Tree Swallows were an uncommon and local species in Ohio. The species now breeds abundantly in every county of the state.

Tree Swallow. Photo by Matthew Shumar.

List of native cavity-nesting species in Ohio

  • Wood Duck  (Aix sponsa)
  • Hooded Merganser  (Lophodytes cucullatus)
  • Common Merganser  (Mergus merganser)
  • Barn Owl  (Tyto alba)
  • Eastern Screech-Owl  (Megascops asio)
  • Barred Owl  (Strix varia)
  • Northern Saw-whet Owl  (Aegolius acadicus)
  • Chimney Swift  (Chaetura pelagica)
  • Red-headed Woodpecker  (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker  (Melanerpes carolinus)
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker  (Sphyrapicus varius)
  • Downy Woodpecker  (Dryobates pubescens)
  • Hairy Woodpecker  (Dryobates villosus)
  • Northern Flicker  (Colaptes auratus)
  • Pileated Woodpecker  (Dryocopus pileatus)
  • American Kestrel  (Falco sparverius)
  • Great Crested Flycatcher  (Myiarchus crinitus)
  • Purple Martin  (Progne subis)
  • Tree Swallow  (Tachycineta bicolor)
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow  (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
  • Carolina Chickadee  (Poecile carolinensis)
  • Black-capped Chickadee  (Poecile atricapillus)
  • Tufted Titmouse  (Baeolophus bicolor)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch  (Sitta canadensis)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch  (Sitta carolinensis)
  • House Wren  (Troglodytes aedon)
  • Carolina Wren  (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
  • Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)
  • Prothonotary Warbler  (Protonotaria citrea)

Note: species such as Belted Kingfisher and Bank Swallow excavate cavities in soil banks, but do not use typical tree cavities or nest boxes.


American Kestrel Highway Nestbox Program

Populations of American kestrels are declining across the US. To try to reverse this decline, the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative, Ohio Ornithological Society (OOS), the American Kestrel Partnership, and the Ohio Division of Wildlife have partnered with the Ohio Department of Transportation to take advantage of some rather unconventional habitat. Kestrels search for insects and other food in large, open areas of short grass, a habitat type that is common along highways. However, kestrels nest in cavities, which are not common along highways. Our innovative nest box trail program utilizes suitable habitat along highway right-of-ways by increasing nesting opportunities.

In 2013, we installed 25 nest boxes on the backs of highway road signs in Wyandot County, Ohio. The boxes were built by the OOS board and volunteer Charles Zepp using funds from the American Kestrel Partnership. In 2014 we installed an additional 16 boxes in Crawford county with the assistance of Crawford Park District, bringing our total to 41 boxes! Volunteers from the University of Findlay and Crawford Park Distict monitor our boxes to see which ones are used and how many young are produced. We can use these results to help guide where we install future boxes. In 2013, our volunteers found 8 nestlings in two occupied boxes. In the 2014 nesting season, 6 of our boxes were used by kestrels, and produced 22 young! In 2015, our partners at Brukner Nature Center installed 11 boxes on I-75 near Troy as part of this initiative. This brings our project total to 53 boxes across the state! Local partners are now monitoring and maintaining boxes on highway signs across the state.

The following organizations and individuals have generously supported the project through donations or volunteering:

Project Supporters


  • Ohio Ornithological Society
  • Crawford Park District
  • Brukner Nature Center
  • American Kestrel Partnership
  • ODNR Division of Wildlife
  • Ohio Department of Transportation
  • Tom Bain
  • Tim and Laura Dornan
  • Scott Frame
  • Matthew Giovanni
  • Linda Leonhard
  • Elizabeth Pente
  • Jill Robinson
  • Al La Sala
  • Susan Scharenberg
  • Marcia Shaffer
  • Wendy Smith
  • Sara Worley
  • Charlie Zepp
  • Jan Kennedy
  • Warren Uxley
  • Lee and Sue Tooman
  • Bill Fisher
  • Madeleine Kuieck
  • Tessa Brown
  • Tracy Swanson
  • Katie Mehlow


American Kestrel highway nestbox. Photo by Amanda Duren.


Resources on cavity nesting birds

Helpful websites:

North American Bluebird Society
Ohio Bluebird Society
Cornell Nestwatch
American Kestrel Partnership
Nestbox Builder
Universal Sparrow Traps
What to Do When you Find an Abandoned Baby Animal

Nest box plans and mounting instructions:

Bluebird Box Plan (Zeppick Design)
Bluebird Box Plan (XBox Design)
Bluebird Box Parts
Bluebird Box Assembly
Zeppick Nest Box Installation Instructions
Mounting and Predator-proofing Materials
Sparrow Spooker Directions
American Kestrel Nestbox Plan
CARW Nest Box Directions
Barn Owl box plans (courtesy of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources)

Monitoring instructions and materials:

Internet Resources for Bluebird Monitors
Bluebird Monitoring Nest-Egg Guide
Cavity Nester Egg Comparison
Project NestWatch Priority Species
Project NestWatch Data Sheet
Bluebird Trail Information
18-day Photo Growth Chart for Bluebirds (Also Available as an App for iPhone and Android)
House Sparrow Trap Tips
Bluebird Homeowner Sample Letter
Monitoring Instructions for American Kestrels
American Kestrel Partnership Monitoring Data Sheet
ODNR-Division of Wildlife – Report a Barn Owl sighting

Purple Martin resources:

Purple Martin Conservation Association
Troyer’s Bird Paradise: 1-800-872-0103
Deluxe Repeating Sparrow Trap
Van Ert Universal Sparrow Trap

Madame Wingnut articles:

HOSP Wars – Pairing Boxes
House Sparrow Control
House Sparrow Wars Part II
Living Inside a Tree Swallow Grid
Ant Infestations
The European Starling
House Wren Management
Eastern Bluebird Killed
House Sparrow History
Purple Martins
White Bluebird Eggs
Bluebird Feeding Tips

For additional information, contact:

Paula Ziebarth –
Darlene Sillick –

Cavity Nesting Program at Mosquito Lake:

One of the largest lakes in Ohio, Mosquito Lake in Trumbull County is surrounded by 2,483 acres of mature woodlands and marshes. This habitat has been enhanced for cavity nesting birds by the dedicated work of Volunteer Coordinator Loyd Marshall and his team of volunteers. Together they have installed and maintain nearly 100 nesting cavities, including a new tower for chimney swifts. In 2013, over 450 birds of 7 species fledged from these boxes and jars, including bluebirds, tree swallows, wood ducks, and purple martins.

To learn more about efforts for cavity nesting species at Mosquito Lake, click here.