A Nest of Their Own

Joe Tonga’s nesting boxes entice owls, parrots, pardalotes and other wild creatures back to the suburbs.

How would you feel if the guy who built your house hid a camera in the ceiling, so that intimate images of your family life were beamed direct to a television screen in his office? Occupants of the homes thus rigged by Joe Tonga are unaware of the surveillance, however. Just like his other tenants — the many that are not monitored — they don’t even know that their ideal suburban residence has been created by a human being.

Joe’s hobby of making nesting boxes began when he and his partner, Lindy, moved to a block in a street with some big trees. Joe made a box from pickets and put it in a tree in the garden. Soon a southern boobook owl was raising babies in it. Next, the self-taught carpenter improved the construction materials and produced different sizes for different birds. He installed them around his property, neighbours bought some too and he realised the occupancy rate was 100 per cent.

“The shortest time I’ve known a bird to move in after I’ve put up the box is one hour,” Joe said. “Many birds require hollows to nest in trees but trees don’t develop hollows for a century or more. “By putting a box up, you can turn a 20 or 30 year-old tree into a 200 year-old habitat tree immediately. Once they find the box, competition is fierce.”

Keen to provide homes for wildlife elsewhere in the metropolitan area — and allow other people the pleasure of having animals live and breed in the backyard — Joe now sells nesting boxes to individuals and to primary schools. Needless to say, the secret camera technology isn’t part of the package. “Only an absolute birdo-nut like me would want that,” Joe said.

Joe is refining a bat box, with the entrance underneath vertical roosting compartments. The boxes are made from recycled materials. Queensland hoop pine, a plantation timber, is used for the sides, base and top; a recycled floorboard forms the backing block. Sheetmetal protects the roof and a wire mesh ladder inside the front wall allows the bird or animal to climb out. The most ingenious part is the entrance tunnel. Each is a natural hollow log, collected by Joe’s brother — who lives and works in the Wheatbelt — from old trees felled during land clearance.

Virtually any tree will do as a support. Even a post will suffice, provided the box is at least 4m above the ground. Joe’s boxes are never empty because after nesting season ends, marbled geckos, huntsmen spiders and myriad beetles move in. Everyone knows growing the right food plants attracts wildlife to a garden but insect populations, water and refuges also are essential.

Joe and Lindy’s garden has five birdbaths and seven ponds, including some tiny ones, and there is shelter everywhere. Frogs crouch in the throats of bromeliads or among reed clumps, and reptiles seek safety under logs and rocks or in earthenware pots laid on their sides — all courtesy of this real estate agent for small creatures whose proximity is — to him — the best reward.

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