There could be months of activity destined for that little wooden box. Nest building, egg laying, chicks hatching, mummy and daddy bird feeding their young and, of course, those first fledgling flights. All of it (potentially) caught on camera.
Bird box cameras are wonderful little things. They’re relatively inexpensive and they can provide a truly unique insight into a bird and her hatchlings’ seasonal cycle. Whether you’ve got acres of garden to hang your nesting houses or you’re resting all your hopes on a single balcony or backyard box, fitting them with a camera is something that’s definitely worth doing.
This article is meant as a broad introduction to the topic. It covers what to look for in a camera (it doesn’t need to be specifically designed for the task) and how to fit out your box. First, however, we’ve picked five of the best cameras on the market. If you pick a good model, it should last for a decent length of time and provide you with viewing pleasure for many years to come…
Our Best Bird Box Camera Picks for 2016
I’ve included selections for those in the UK (where I’m based) and in the USA. I’ve popped a little note in the headers to indicate which ones are available to whom.
“700 TVL” Tiny Camera Kit (US and UK)
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This is a comparatively less expensive camera (so great as a starter) that doesn’t sacrifice quality. A microphone is included, and the camera has an infrared night-vision/daytime colour alternation with 700 TVL definition. Its dimensions are only 3cm by 3cm – so it’s perfect for tucking away into a small space. The lens and camera position are also fully adjustable, so you’ll be able to set the ideal viewing position.
You can connect the AV cable (65ft/20m – so less than the second model on the list) to any TV or PC with the right input. You can, if you want to, connect to a computer using a USB cable, which is available through the company. On the downside (though it’s important to look at these in the context of the price) there are only six LEDs and it can be (depending on circumstances) a little difficult to work with given the way it’s designed. One final point: if you decide to get this off Amazon, be wary that the picture they use has four cameras on it. You only get one.
In terms of the sister model with a wireless receiver, it happily plugs in to both a monitor and a TV and it’s a relatively easy job setting up your computer to record the footage if that’s what you want to do. It has a reach of about 50m but this does need to be unobstructed. The issue is that you have to supply the camera with power, so the objective of having a wireless receiver is largely undermined. You’re still going to have to figure out a way of connecting the camera to some kind of plug socket with an extended power lead (or use a powerful battery). The only circumstances in which I can imagine the need for it would be if you intend to have a laptop or TV that is significantly far away from the power socket. The one plus is that it has 720 TVL resolution (a comparatively higher figure) but interference, such as from a broadband transmitter, can be common.
Digiflex Wireless Camera (UK)
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This one squarely hits the button for price. Its a “CCTV Spy Camera” rather than a camera designed specifically for bird boxes, but it’s prefectly-suited for the activity. It has four LED lights, which work to a metre’s distance, 380 TVL resolution (mid-range) and an adjustable focus. The camera reaquires a power sourse so you will need to find a way of connecting the adapter near the bird house, or use a battery. The wireless reciever itself has a range of up to 50 metres.
Hawk Eye HD Camera (US)
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This is a pretty cool camera from Birdhouse Spy Cam, a company that sells a wide range of products for spying on an equally wide range of wildlife. It’s a colour camera that has night vision – so if there’s enough light during the day you’ll get some great colour images, if not the infrared LED (10 lights) will enable itself. The camera resolution is at 700TVL and so will give a reasonably good high definition picture (many of the other products on this list offer a lower definition). The cable is 100ft/30m long, meaning you should be fine with this wherever you decide install it. You can record either from the television or a computer that’s set up to receive an AV (audio/video) lead.
Another great feature of the Hawk Eye is its microphone. It’s of an exceptional quality and will pick up the sounds of any inhabitants. A lot of people expect an incomprehensible clamour from the sounds of the birds and the wildlife outside but it’s important to remember that the walls of the box have an insulating effect.
The overall quality is fantastic and well worth the little extra investment.
Hawk Eye Camera (US)
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This is the less expensive pre-runner to the model above. It has many of the same specs – colour and infrared camera, built-in audio, and 100ft power lead that works with TV and AV-enabled computers. The one interesting feature that this piece has (that the others don’t) is a sun shield over the top, so it will be ideal if you want to use it outdoors. That said, it’s not waterproof so extra protection (if it’s not in a birdhouse) will be needed. In comparison to the “Hawk Eye HD”, it has a lower resolution and lower night-vision LED power.
Setting the Thing up…the Basics of Nesting Box Cameras
The signal produced from nearly all cameras of this type is a composite one (i.e. all the components needed to create the video picture are included in one signal) that is sent via a single cable or wirelessly. Some cameras also have a microphone attached too, which can add an interesting dimension to the video. Whether or not you opt for a wireless or cable model will depend on your specific circumstances. The thing to remember is that the distance covered by a wireless receiver isn’t always significantly greater than that of a wire, but they are much more prone to interference. Make sure to always check the distances over which they’ll work in the context of how much space you’ll need to cover.
Generally speaking, bird box cameras use a mixture of colour and infrared lighting to generate their images. The IR wavelength is invisible to both bird and human eyes and produces a black-and-white (or grey-scale) picture. The basic process is somewhat similar to a normal camera, the only difference being that the reflected IR waves, not those on the visible spectrum, are registered. The key benefit (alongside being invisible to wildlife) is that recording can be done in the dark.
Without any natural light, which it can be difficult to generate in closed boxes, you’ll be a little hard-pressed to find a colour camera. There are various tricks to try and overcome the absence of light, such as cutting out a side window, but these aren’t worth the effort in my opinion.
What Comes With a Camera Kit
Generally speaking you’re going to get three things when you buy a kit: a camera, a cable or wireless adaptor and a power source. If you’re planning on installing it a good distance from your house then, as mentioned, you’ll likely need to opt for a wireless system and make sure it can pick up signals from wherever the nesting box is located.
The cables tend to be of a low quality so you may want to get a higher-end one. The thing to remember is that the longer the distance you have to cover, as with wireless transmission, the more likely you are to get interference, which is often an issue with cheap cables.
The camera will then be connected to either your TV or a computer, where you can set it to record all the time, check up on it for new activity (the usual advice is to set up a marker so that you’ll be able to tell if there’s been any entrants without having to scroll through hours of footage), or use software in conjunction with a motion-detector enabled camera to record only the times when there’s actually movement. You can actually also buy (or freely download) motion-detection software that will detect movement if you leave your camera recording on the computer.
Can I Use Any Camera?
In theory you could use any camera that has night vision and can be operated somewhat remotely, either with a cable or wirelessly. In practice, however, you’re going to save yourself a lot of problems if you opt for something that’s small and designed specifically for outside use. You can always have a peek inside, especially if you know the parents are out, but you want to avoid this as much as possible so as not to disturb the nesting birds (it is rather satisfying, if you know that the house is empty, to have an occasional peek at the eggs).
Setting Them Up
You essentially have two options when buying. You can either get a box with a camera already installed or install it yourself. The first selection in our list is a good example of a model taht comes with prepackaged box. If you’re going to take a DIY approach, then you can build the box from scratch (fat too much work in my opinion unless you enjoy that kind of thing) or buy a box with a roof that can open.
Birds like wrens and blue tits prefer boxes with smaller, circular openings whilst open-fronted boxes are best suited for the bigger ones like robins. In either case you’ll want to pick a spot that’s sheltered and unlikely to attract predators. In the city cats in particular can be a hassle. Try to get the box at least two metres off the ground and allow for a somewhat open space in front (you want to make sure they can find it) without being too exposed. For open-front boxes you want to hide the entrance as best you can with foliage (these tend to be less suitable for urban spaces).
The obvious risk is that the box will overheat in summer, frazzling the little hatchlings inside. So try and add a little shade to the area too (I know it sounds like there’s a lot of factors to get right, but it’s not too much of an issue if one or two are on the borderline). Some resources advise to avoid pointing the box north, in the direct glare of the sun but, as long as you’ve provided a little shelter, I wouldn’t worry too much about this.
A Bit of a Side Story…
I learned the value of positioning boxes for smaller birds away from other nests and bird boxes from my irascible old grandfather. I went round to his allotment one morning where, brandishing an old twelve foot stick, he promptly told me to follow him into his little self-planted thicket of trees. He then began to forcefully poke it through a huge nest up in some of the higher branches, shouting, “I’m gonna get the bastard!”
Now you’d be forgiven for wanting to call the local wildlife services, but there was actually a laudable motive behind the violence – it was more an exercise in discouragement than an attempt to inflict harm. The resident magpie (or perhaps a blackbird I forget which) was standing on top of the various bird boxes that had been installed and scaring off the potential (or current) inhabitants. So the moral of the story? Give your nesting boxes lots of space!