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Choosing a Camera Nest Box

We realise that for many people, when selecting a nest box camera, the choices can be difficult because there are so many options, many of which sound very technical. In this article, we review with reference to our products some of the main things you may like to consider when specifying or choosing a camera bird box. We hope this will make it easier for you to take an informed decision.

To check what we mean by the specialist terms we have used, please take a look at the glossary.

• What Camera Bird Boxes Consist of

The main parts of a camera bird box are:
1. Nest box - which provides a protected space inside which the birds will create their nest
2. Camera - mounted to get a view of the nesting activity
3. Power - the electric power needed for the camera
4. Transmission - getting the picture to the display device such as a TV.

You have a choice for each part. Getting each of these right to suit your needs will make all the difference to the success of your camera nest box.

The Nestbox Company make a wide range of camera bird boxes, many of which have features (such as separate battery box, long battery life, or combined white/infra red lights) not readily available elsewhere. We hold UK Patent 2420242 which covers many of these innovations and do not licence it to anyone else, so you can be sure that buying a camera bird box from us gives you access to leading UK technology.

• The Nest Box

Nest boxes are made in a variety of different materials, and come in different shapes and sizes. The way a camera bird box is constructed varies, as do the arrangements for housing any battery or on/off switch etc.

Side opening nest boxOur range of camera bird boxes are manufactured in exterior grade European birch plywood and FSC certified. We consider plywood to be a good choice for a camera nest box, as it can generally be cut more accurately than solid wood boxes, and as a result, the box will start its life with less gaps and cracks for moisture to enter. Once out in the weather, it also has much better dimensional stability than solid wood and so is less likely to split or warp, and will often last much longer than a solid wood box.

If choosing a wooden box, we would suggest making sure it is made with timber which comes from responsibly managed forests, and doesn't have to be shipped from the opposite side of the world. If you don’t do this, you may inadvertently be contributing to the destruction of the world’s rainforests! It is easy to check this, by looking for the FSC® or PEFC certification. Many wooden camera nest boxes do not carry this certification, and we have never seen a concrete/sawdust box which does! All our wooden camera bird boxes are fabricated by stapling panels together, and finished with a light water based bird friendly stain/preservative.

Side opening nest box with hole plateA camera bird box needs to provide the right environment for its occupants, as well as to offer a suitable mounting point for the camera. The camera needs to be mounted far enough away from the nest area to get a good picture, so a little more space will be required inside smaller nest boxes. The small boxes which are supplied as standard with all our camera nestboxes are suitable for a wide range of small garden birds, whilst if you are trying to attract a larger species, a specialist box may be required. The Nestbox Company can fit its camera kits into many of its range of boxes designed for particular species, including large bird boxes, kestrel boxes, owl boxes and hedgehog boxes. Our standard side opening nestboxes are supplied with a 32mm hole, if you wish to especially encourage some of the smaller species then we'd suggest purchasing a hole plate to reduce the entrance hole to 25mm or 28mm.

• Camera

Advanced wireless nestbox cameraThe miniature cameras used in camera bird boxes are of two types: Colour or Black and White. Either can give good TV pictures and operate at the same speeds, but colour tends to be more expensive, although the price difference is reducing. The Nestbox Company only uses colour cameras as they feel that colour is part of the experience of watching birds, whether in a nest box or outside. We wouldn’t want to sell a camera bird box that wasn’t colour. Camera bird boxes use camera technology which is based on arranging for the light, after passing through the lens system, to fall on an electronic sensor (the equivalent to the film on a photographic camera). The data from the sensor is processed by the camera’s electronics to send a picture to the TV. There are 2 types of sensor in use: CCD (standing for Charge Coupled Device), and CMOS (standing for Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor).

CCD sensors were invented in the 1960s, and essentially consist of many tiny capacitors arranged in rows and columns over the surface of the sensor. When light hits an individual capacitor, the capacitor becomes charged. To “take” the photo, these charges are all passed across row by row (ie one column at a time) to readers at the end of each row, which in turn pass their readings on to the electronics which assembles the whole picture.

CMOS sensors are a more recent development and consist instead of similar tiny sensors as well as many adjacent transistors to process the information right next to each tiny sensor.

CMOS sensors are manufactured using the same process as manufacture of memory and processor chips, and because of the volume, are less expensive to produce as well as more reliable. They use much less electricity than CCD but are not quite so sensitive to light.

CMOS cameras are generally smaller than CCD cameras, use much less (from 4 to 100 times) electricity, but do not give such a bright image.

The sensitivity of the cameras depends on both the sensors and electronics in the camera bird boxes. The electronics are designed to allow for a good image in as wide a range of light levels as possible. This is known as the “dynamic range”, but as the light level in bright sunshine may be many thousands of times brighter than the lowest light level at which the camera can obtain a picture, the electronics can sometimes struggle with this range. At either extreme of light level, the picture will tend to lose detail and either go very dark or very light.

The Nestbox Company mainly uses CMOS cameras in its camera bird box products.

o Illumination Inside Box

To get a good picture you need to get an appropriate light level inside the camera bird box. There are 3 approaches to this:

o Natural Light

To get a good colour picture in daylight, the simplest solution is to rely on daylight. As there will probably not be enough light entering through the entrance hole, it is common practice to add a “window” to allow a limited amount of additional light in to the camera bird box. As one of the attractions of the box to birds is usually that it is relatively dark, this window needs to be relatively small.

The Wired Camera Nest Box and Wireless Camera Nest Box both use this approach.

o White Light

The most sophisticated camera bird boxes don’t have a window but put a small white light inside the box. This has the advantage that it gives a much better regulated light level inside the camera bird box, and enables better colour quality of the pictures.  The Advanced Wireless Camera Nest Box adopts this strategy.

o Infra Red Light

Infra red lights are used at night for some camera bird boxes to allow the nest to be watched 24 hours a day. Infra red is used as it is not visible to the birds, so cannot affect their natural sense of day/night. When the box is illuminated with infra red the picture (although technically still colour) will look black and white.

All the camera bird boxes from the Nestbox Company have infra red illumination.

The lighting system in the Advanced Wireless Camera Nest Box checks the natural light level coming into the camera bird box every 10 minutes or so, and if there is sufficient light for a colour picture it switches off the lights inside. If it is so dark that it considers it night time (ie from dusk to dawn) it switches on the infra red light. If the light level is between these two, it will switch on the white light.

o Audio

Some camera bird boxes have a microphone in the box, and the electronics to provide sound from the TV.

All the camera bird boxes from the Nestbox Company include audio.

• Transmission

There are 2 ways of transferring the images from the camera bird box to the TV or display unit:

o Cable Transmission

The electronically encoded picture is sent directly over a cable from the camera in the bird box to the TV or other device used as a display. The pictures and audio are less susceptible to interference than wireless systems, but with losses in the cable, may still pick up interference and not travel as far as a wireless system.

As a cable is required from the camera to the TV, it is usual to add an additional conductor to the same cable to supply power to the camera.

The Nestbox Company's Wired Camera Nest Box uses this mode of transmission.

o Wireless or Radio Transmission

A small radio transmitter in (or close to) the camera bird box sends the picture and audio across the airwaves to a receiver typically located in the house, which connects to the TV to display the pictures and play the sounds.

The nominal range of these camera bird boxes is usually 100 metres, and they use the 2.4GHz band, which is used as it is available in most countries in the world for use without a separate radio licence. Some systems are marketed as using the 1.2GHz band, but these are not legal in Europe unless separately licenced. Other products including microwave ovens, WiFi networks, video senders and Bluetooth devices also use the 2.4GHZ band. Because these devices usually have relatively low range, and can swap channels within the band, it is generally easy to ensure that local WiFi networks (for example) use a different channel, avoiding cross-device interference.

Wireless camera bird boxes avoid the need to run a cable from camera to TV, which saves time, looks better, avoids drilling holes through the wall, and eliminates the hazards of tripping over trailing cables.  The Wireless Camera Nest Box and Advanced Wireless Camera Nest Box both use radio.

• Power for the Camera

The electronics inside the camera nest box require electricity to run. The camera, lighting system and wireless transmitter all need power.

o Mains

By using a small mains power supply unit, all camera nest boxes can be powered using mains electricity. For wired camera nest boxes, the power can be provided through a combination video/audio/power cable from the house, but for wireless camera bird boxes, power still needs to be provided, and this needs supplying from a local source. It may not be convenient to provide mains in a shed or garden.

All the bird box cameras sold by the Nestbox Company will operate using the supplied mains power supply unit.

o Battery

All camera bird boxes can be operated by battery, but many products on sale do not provide any sort of box or enclosure for the batteries. The only practical way of operating some wireless camera bird boxes may be by mains.

The Nestbox Company provides switched battery boxes with (approx) 2.5 metre cables to the nest box for all its wireless nest box cameras. All our battery boxes will operate on single use batteries (such as alkaline) or rechargeable (eg NiMH) batteries.

Some wireless camera bird boxes are sold as "battery operated" when their battery life is as low as 2 hours. All our products are designed to give class leading battery life, measured in weeks or months. The Nestbox Company's Advanced Wireless Camera Nest Box in particular has a battery life of up to 7 months.

For any camera bird box intended to be operated by battery, it is necessary to provide some sort of housing for the batteries. It is preferable to have a separate battery box a few metres away from the nest box, so that the batteries can be changed without (for example) climbing a tree to do so, and most importantly without disturbing the birds.

The battery box will need to be of solid construction, and of appropriate material (such as UV stable plastic) to last well when left out in all weathers. It should have just a small hole for the wire to the bird box, located so water doesn't run in.

o Solar

Solar power coming from a solar panel can be used to charge the rechargeable batteries running a camera bird box.

The Advanced Wireless Camera Nest Box is equipped (inside the battery box) with charging electronics and sockets so up to 2 Solar Panels can be plugged in to power the camera bird box.

Peter Bubb BEng, PhD, CEng, FIET, CMath, FIMA

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