By Laurelle Walsh
Patrick Hannigan has been interested in birds and building things since he was a child. At some point, the two interests overlapped, he said, “and building nest boxes just seemed like a natural confluence.”
Hannigan now builds and sells Nice Nests, boxes made from salvaged scrap wood and reclaimed hardware, designed specifically to provide functional breeding habitat for cavity-nesting birds. He also offers installation and consultation services for landowners interested in enhancing breeding habitat for more than three dozen species of cavity nesters in the Methow Valley.
He started building nest boxes about 10 years ago with his grandfather, Boompi, who has since passed away. Many of the boxes they built still hang on fenceposts and trees around his and his friends’ homes, and “each year the houses are full of life,” Hannigan said.
Hannigan prefers the term “nest box” to “bird house,” he said, because “unfortunately most bird houses for sale out there are dysfunctional yard art made for people, not birds.”
Nice Nests have roughed-up interior walls, sloped roofs, and drainage and ventilation holes. They are designed to be opened without tools to allow for easy clean out and monitoring of nests.
“Roughing up” the interior walls of the nest box is crucial, to allow fledglings to climb out of the box when it’s time to leave the nest. “Smooth plywood boxes are like death traps,” Hannigan said. “Birds can’t get out of them.”
Nice Nests are built with properly sized entrance holes, floor dimensions and box depths for each target species, because differences as small as 1/16 inch can be critical. For example, an aggressive starling cannot squeeze through a hole smaller than 1 ½ inch, but a tree swallow can. A nest box with a 1 1/8-inch hole will exclude invasive house sparrows but allow chickadees and wrens to set up housekeeping.
“A lot more goes into making nest boxes than people realize,” said Hannigan.
Besides building and selling boxes, the other focus of Hannigan’s business is the preservation, creation and enhancement of breeding habitat for cavity-nesting birds. This might take the form of consulting with an individual about which birds might nest and where to place boxes in a backyard, or installing multiple nest boxes on hundreds of acres for a land conservation group.
Hannigan recently installed 22 nest boxes at the Twisp River Rearing Ponds, working with biologist Kent Woodruff and partnering with Twisp River resident Chuck Russell and the Methow Salmon Recovery Foundation. The nest boxes will provide niches and micro habitats for 12 bird species including northern saw-whet owls, wood ducks and hooded mergansers. And for American dippers, who like to nest on overhangs above running water, Hannigan and Woodruff installed a series of open-sided shelves under several footbridges at the ponds.
“Now is a great time to put up nest boxes,” when migratory birds are returning to the Methow Valley and “staking out nesting opportunities,” said Hannigan. “Posey [Hannigan’s 5-year-old-daughter] and I put up a box two weeks ago and within a week there were chickadees checking it out.”
April and May are prime nesting season for most local bird species, but if you install a nest box later in the summer, young birds will still find it, imprint on it and return to it next year, Hannigan said. “A lot of cavity nesters return to the same box every year, the same individuals and their offspring,” he added.
A full-time job
Hannigan made the leap into entrepreneurship after 11 years tending bar at the Twisp River Pub and working part time at the Methow Valley News and TwispWorks. He brought 20 to 30 Nice Nests to the Methow Valley Farmers Market last spring and, when they started selling, he began to develop a business plan, he said. Nice Nests recently became his full-time job.
Nice Nests are made of 100-percent salvaged scrap wood and “found” hardware, Hannigan said. He’s not above pawing through construction site burn piles for materials, and has used old hinges, doorknobs and rusted car parts on his boxes. “I have worked a lot in construction, and I’ve always been amazed by the waste and scrap wood at job sites. I asked myself, ‘What can we do with this stuff?’”
He sees the re-use of wood scraps as completing the cycle of wood’s life. Wood starts as a tree (wildlife habitat), gets turned into lumber for humans to use, and is salvaged and gets turned once more into critical habitat for birds, he observed.
Every nest box Hannigan builds is unique, with time-weathered wood, a gable or shed roof, and painted trim to match the colors of nature: bluebird blue, woodpecker red or balsamroot yellow.
This spring Hannigan is bringing Nice Nests to home and garden shows and birding festivals around the Pacific Northwest. He had a booth recently at the Sandhill Crane Festival in Othello, and attended Wings Over Water in Blaine, Washington, and the Port Susan Snow Goose Festival on Camano Island.
This summer he plans to sell Nice Nests in Twisp at the farmers market on Saturday, on Thursday evenings in Chelan, and “now and then” at the Pybus Market in Wenatchee. Nice Nests are always available at local retailers YardFood and the Mazama Store.
More information and an online shop may be found at www.nicenests.com.