Bird BiosPreferred Habitat by Species for Birdhouse Birds

Preferred Habitat by Species for Birdhouse Birds

Birds don’t read books. Where they nest depends on the local climate, local populations of partners and competitors, availability of food, available nesting sites such as snags, etc. Geographic variation is common. For example, the Hairy Woodpecker tends be in mature mixed-hardwood forests and avoid pine except in Florida where it frequents mature pinelands and swamp forests.

If information on breeding habitat was not available, I just used habitat. The majority of this information was culled from Birds of North American online. I’m always looking for input, so if you have more details or corrections, please contact me.

Species are listed below in alpha order by common name. See Nestbox Specifications for specifics on preferred nestbox size, entrance hole, and mounting height.

At least 46 species of North American birds may use nestboxes. Birds with a * by their name are most commonly reported in nestboxes in The Birdhouse Network (TBN) database. Birds with an x by their name are on TBN’s Most Wanted List with less than 50 nest attempts in their database as of 2007.

Breeding Bird Survey Summer Distribution Maps are apparently no longer online, but you can look up range maps for each species at Cornell’s site All About Birds (look up by species) or

(Scientific Name)

Typical Preferred Habitat for Breeding
Bluebird – Eastern
(Sialia sialis) *
Bluebird – Mountain
(Sialia currucoides) *
Along roadsides, on ranches and farms with pastures, prairie forest with groves of trees, short grasses and scattered shrubs, savannahs, recently burned areas, clear cuts, edges of alpine tundra, sagebrush flats and valleys.
Bluebird – Western
(Sialia mexicana) *
Open canopy woodlands (coniferous and deciduous) and edge with scattered trees, moderately disturbed areas including moderately logged forests and burned areas with available foraging perches. Wooded riparian areas, grasslands, farmlands but does not prefer large open meadows like Eastern Bluebird, or deserts. Rural and suburban areas.
Ash-throated Flycatcher(Myiarchus cinerascens) * Pastures and clearings near dense scrub/sagebrush/chaparral/mesquite,pine, cedar, oak groves, saguaro, near heavily wooded or open forested areas, and perhapsa creek or a pond in arid/semi-arid areas. Woodland corridors along washes, streams, canyon bodies, or on the edge of dense woodland and forest with adjacent foraging territories in desert scrub habitats.
Barn Owl
(Tyto alba)
Primarily open habitats: grasslands, deserts, coastal marshes, and agricultural fields or fields in early states of succession to most forest types. Light woodland, semi-open areas with scattered trees. Also in towns and around human habitations, old buildings, etc.
Barred Owl
(Strix varia)
Deep, mature forests near streams and swamps. In the Pacific Northwest it readily inhabits mature second-growth forest.
Bewick’s Wren
(Thryomanes bewickii)
Mixtures of thick scrubby vegetation and open woodland and farmyards, fence rows. Eastern populations often around farm outbuildings (e.g., shed, garage, barn) near brushy or wooded areas in cleared or fairly open country. Western in brushy areas usually away from humans.
Black-crested Titmouse See Tufted Titmouse. Temperate brush lands including tamamaulipan thorn shrub, piedmont scrub, montane low forest, and montane mesic forest.
Black-capped Chickadee
(Poecile atricapilla) *
Deciduous and mixed deciduous (e.g. birch or alder)/coniferous woodland, open woods and parks, willow thickets, and cottonwood groves. Also disturbed areas, such as old fields or suburban areas. Generally more common near edges of wooded areas, but can be found even in the middle of large wooded tracts.
Boreal Chickadee
(Poecile hudsonica) x
Strong preference for coniferous forest.
Bridled Titmouse
(Baeolophus wollweberi)
Favors dense oak patches, predominantly with oak or mixed oak-pine-juniper woodlands, areas along streams with cottonwoods.
Brown-headed Nuthatch
(Sitta pusilla) x
(Bucephala albeola)
Same are as Northern Flicker (main source of nesting cavities.) Open poplar or aspen stands near water (freshwater, small permanent ponds and small lakes, little or no emergent, submerged vegetation along shore). Prairie habitat only when stands of trees are near the water.
Carolina Chickadee
(Poecile carolinensis) *
Multi-layered forest with a healthy shrub, midstory, and overstory canopy – swamp forests, maritime/riparian hardwood forests, hardwood and pine. In great plain states found in tree-shrub-savannah communities, ranchland. Coastal plains, swamps. Inhabits parks, well-wooded suburban and urban areas. Will nest under canopy as well as in open areas, may prefer edge of open grassland.
Carolina Wren
(Thryothorus ludovicianus)
Dense shrub or thick underbrush, or woods with tangled brushy undergrowth. Wide range of habitats, from brushy clear cuts and lowland cypress swamps to hemlock and rhododendron choked ravines.
Chestnut Backed Chickadee
(Poecile rufescens) x
Strong preference for coniferous forest habitat, also in deciduous woodlands and along streams.
Chimney Swift
(Chaetura pelagica)
Common Goldeneye
(Bucephala clangula)
Primarily wetlands, lakes, and rivers bordered by mature coniferous forests. Prefers large sand bottom, shallow (,10 feet) lakes or lake clusters with clear water and good visibility, few or no fish, and low or simple or irregular shorelines without a lot of vegetation, but adjacent stands of old hardwoods.
Downy Woodpecker
(Picoides pubescens)
Fairly open, deciduous (aspen, cottonwood, willow, elm, oak, ash, etc.), especially riparian forest, less abundant in coniferous forests except when associated with deciduous understory. Orchards and wooded urban and suburban parks and residential areas. May nest in open areas in vacant lots with tall weeds fence rows. Will use less mature and moderately open forest.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
(Passer montanus)
Woodlands, cultivated and abandoned fields and farms, and parks near human habitation. Has not spread far beyond eastern Missouri, west-central Illinois and southeastern Iowa.

NON-NATIVE. Do not allow to nest in nestboxes unless protected in your state.

Flicker, Gilded
(Colaptes chrysoides)
Flicker, Northern
(Colaptes auratus)
Open country or lightly wooded suburban areas with park-like situations, forest edge and open woodlands approaching savannas. Riparian woodlands, swamps or recently flooded areas with numerous snags, beaver ponds, farm woodlots, and shelter belts; and settled areas from villages to suburbs. May avoid cavities that are too deep (over 13″ from hole to floor) since they don’t build a nest.
Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) x Clearings and edges of mature forest, orchards, parks, swamps, and cultivated areas scattered with trees.
Hairy Woodpecker
(Picoides villosus)
Mainly mature woodlands prevalent. Less common in small woodlots, wooded parks, cemeteries, shaded residential areas, and other urban areas with mature shade trees.
Hooded Merganser
(Lophodytes cucullatus) x
Prefers wooded, clear water streams. Forested wetlands. May be in grasslands and non-forested wetlands with riparian corridors. Emergent marshes, small lakes, ponds, beaver wetlands, forested creeks and rivers, and swamps. Usually shallow with exposed areas like rocks or logs for loafing. Prefers small fishless, headwater ponds, with neutral acidity.
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) Disturbed areas near humans, such as backyards, parks, urban centers, farms and forest edges. Not found in open grasslands or desert flats far from things they can nest and perch on, or in dense coniferous forests.
House Sparrow
(Passer domesticus) *
Found throughout the populated world. Common in agricultural, suburban, and urban areas. The only areas they tend to avoid are woodlands, forests, large grasslands, and deserts.
NON-NATIVE. Do not allow to nest in nestboxes.
House Wren
(Troglodytes aedon) *
Fragmented forest and orchards (edges, small woodlots), swamps, farmland, residential areas and parks near trees and shrubs. Usually avoids nest sites ≥100 feet from any significant woody vegetation. However, also avoids sites in heavily vegetated locations where visibility is low.
Juniper Titmouse
(Baeolophus ridgwayi)
Warm, dry habitats of open woodland, especially pinyon/juniper. Most common where juniper is dominant, with large, mature trees and dense canopy.
Kestrel, American
(Falco sparverius)
Open or semi-open plains and pastures or fields covered by short ground vegetation, with a few tall trees/snags, or along edges of forest openings.
Lewis’s Woodpecker
Melanerpes lewis)
Open canopy with brushy understory, snags or downed woody materials. Open park-like ponderosa or piñon pine/fir forest, open riparian woodland dominated by cottonwood, or logged or burned pine, oak, woodland, nut and fruit orchards, farm and ranch land.
Mountain Chickadee
(Poecile gambeli) x
Coniferous forest with deciduous (e.g., aspen) with large trees, few shrubs, riparian zone.
Oak Titmouse
(Baeolophus inornatus) x
Warm, dry, open oak or oak-pine woodlands. May use scrub oaks or other brush as long as woodland occurs nearby. In some areas without oaks, uses juniper/open pine forest.
Prothonotary Warbler
(Protonotaria citrea)
PROWs prefer areas with stagnant or slow moving water, especially those that only flood intermittently, such as swamps (especially bald cypress swamps), ponds, wet forested bottomlands, flooded river valleys, and streams with willows, backyard ponds. Prefers low elevation, flat terrain, shaded forest habitat with sparse understory. Avoids forests less than 100 hectares in area , and waterways with wooded borders less than 30 hectares wide.
Purple Martin
(Progne subis)
Eastern is around human settlements in the east, including very urban environments. Avoid higher elevations, deserts and grasslands. May be in open woodland (e.g., aspen) along edges of beaver ponds, or burned over/logged forests edge in riparian areas (e.g., wooded ponds/beaver marshes.) Western in pine/hardwood forests and saguaro cactus desert.
Pygmy Nuthatch
(Sitta pygmaea) x
Strong and almost exclusive preference for mature, undisturbed (unlogged) long-needled pine (e.g., ponderosa, Jeffrey pine) forests. In CA, also nests in big-cone Douglas Fir or Oak if mixed among pinese.
Pygmy Owl
(Glaucidium gnoma)
Open coniferous or mixed forests, e.g., ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and fir-redwood-cedar.
Red-bellied Woodpecker
(Melanerpes carolinus)
Dry to wet sites consisting of relatively mature hardwoods where large-diameter trees are present, with large expanses of forest, but readily uses mixed pine-hardwood forests in the Deep South, and mesic pine flat woods. . Inhabits heavily timbered bottomlands, swampy woods, and riparian forests heavily wooded with oaks and elms.
Red-breasted Nuthatch
(Sitta canadensis)
Mature and diverse stands of coniferous forest, especially with spruce, fir, pine, hemlock, larch, and cedar, also in woodland where lots of conifers are mixed with deciduous trees such as aspen, oak and polar. In West prefer high canopies and large trees. Eastern populations appear to be more tolerant of mixed-forest habitats. Known for smearing nest entrance with pitch to deter predators.
Red-cockaded Woodpecker
(Picoides borealis)
Extensive mature open pine forest maintained naturally by frequent fires sometimes in stands that are younger or where hardwood encroachment is dense. Prefer open, park-like pine forests at least 80-120 years old. Usually nest and roost in cavities excavated in living, mature pines whose heartwood was destroyed by fungus.
Red-headed Woodpecker
(Melanerpes erythrocephalus)
Prefers open deciduous woodlands; open, upland meadows or short grass areas (farm, golf courses, parks, savannah grasslands) with scattered large deciduous trees or groves, field edges, burned timber stands with, lush herbaceous ground cover – not woods with closed canopies, forest edge and along roadsides. Attracted to timber with little or no leaf canopy, such as those sprayed with herbicides, or trees killed by flooding (e.g. beaver ponds). May prefer snags with little bark remaining.
Screech Owl, Eastern
(Megascops asio)
Along permanent watercourses at lower elevations, tree-dominated landscapes of most types, natural and culturally modified, early successional to mature, urban and suburban yards, parks, and green belts. Prefers open subcanopy space with sparse shrub cover, like meadow edges and fruit orchards.
Screech Owl, Western
(Megascops kennicottii) x
Seasonally wet, upland riparian habitats with deciduous trees. Widely spaced trees, interspersed with grassy open space.
Starling, European(Sturnus vulgaris) Where ever there is food, nest sites and water – typically around cities and towns, and in agricultural areas. The only places they do not frequent are large expanses of woods, arid chaparral and deserts.

NON-NATIVE. Do not allow to nest in nestboxes.



Tufted Titmouse
(Baeolophus bicolor)
Deciduous forest, also may be in deciduous-coniferous, swamps, orchards, parks, suburban areas. Prefers tall vegetation, large numbers of tree species, dense canopy. They may like a spot near food sources like bird feeders. They do not like to cross open spaces, so they may also prefer boxes under heavy tree canopy. They may prefer boxes mounted on trees, which poses a risk of predation. They will nest near a house (reported 15-20 feet away). Prefer higher percent of forest cover (vs. fragmented forests <2 ha in size).
Tree Swallow
(Tachycineta bicolor) *
Open areas, usually near water, including fields, marshes, shorelines, and wooded swamps with standing dead trees that provide sites for cavities.
Violet-green Swallow(Tachycineta thalassina) * Open or broken deciduous, coniferous , and mixed woodlands (e.g., ponderosa pine, aspen, willow, spruce). Often in tall dead snags. Prefers trees in open areas (e.g., open groves or woodland edge).
White-breasted Nuthatch
(Sitta carolinensis) x
Mature deciduous woodland (large, decaying trees), but also mixed deciduous and coniferous forest, preferring forest edge near open areas (water, road, clearing, field) near nest. (Red-breasted nuthatch more common in boreal coniferous forest.) In California seems to prefer oak. Prefer natural holes in large, old trees. May refuse to nest in a box mounted on a pole, instead preferring tall trees with the box mounted 12-20 feet high. Report of nesting in a baffled box on a post under a tree canopy. Large loose chunks of bark attached to the nestbox may be attractive, along with an entrance hole in the upper back corner on the side of the box (with no overhang) and with the hole nearly hidden by a larger branch coming out right beside the entrance hole, or perhaps a chalet style roof with little overhang in the front that enables the bird to walk head down towards the hole. 1-4″ wood shavings placed in box may promote excavation.
Wood Duck
(Aix sponsa)
Interspersion of flooded shrubs, water-tolerant trees (e.g., by beaver ponds), and small areas of open water resulting in about 50–75% cover are favored. Stable water levels important to success. Scrub/shrub wetlands with overhead cover of downed timber and woody shrubs. Wetlands with dense stands of emergent plants Best if a mixture of shallow, freshwater wetland types are close together.

References and More Information:

    • Birds of North American online (Cornell) – detailed species accounts, scientific references, descriptions of behavior, nesting timing, migration, population trends, conservation, etc. (paid subscription for full access)
    • Breeding Bird Survey (USGS) Relative Abundance Maps no longer online
    • Cavity-Nesting Birds of North American Forests, USDA Forest Service formerly at
    • Nest and Egg ID,
    • Cornell’s site All About Birds (look up by species) or

“Never say never” is my best advice to bluebirders everywhere. Just when you think you can make sweeping statements, an exception seems to “pop up.” I use what works best for me on my trails. Others will eventually find out what works best for them on theirs!
– Ann Wick, WI, Bluebird_L, 2006


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