Bird Watcher's General Store

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Birdhouse Building

Dear Bird Folks,

I’m thinking about building a few birdhouses as Christmas gifts. My problem is that I can’t seem to find a basic set of plans. I have purchased several books but they all feature houses that are way too fancy for my birds and too difficult for my skills. Do you have any suggestions where I might find some simple birdhouse plans?

– Katie, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada


I know what you mean, Katie,

It is almost impossible to find a book on buildable birdhouses. For some reason publishers feel that they need to print books with plans that are not only impossible for the average person to build, but would totally scare the birds if someone did build them. The birds in Canada certainly don’t want a house that looks like the Chateau Frontenac or the SkyDome. (Yes, I know they have changed the name of the SkyDome to the “Rogers Centre,” but everybody knows that was a mistake.) Birds are simple folk. They don’t use condiments on their food and they don’t need an architect to design their homes. A simple rectangular box may seem dull to us, but it’s a welcome sight for a bird looking to build a nest.

Before you look for birdhouse plans, you need to decide which species of bird you want to build a house for. The larger the bird, the larger the box needs to be. (It’s amazing the stuff I know.) If you are going to make only one kind of box, a bluebird box would be a good choice. Not only might you get a family of bluebirds, but you could also attract some smaller birds like nuthatches, chickadees or wrens. The smaller birds are happy to use a large box built for bluebirds. However, the larger bluebird can’t use a smaller bird’s box. So, if you hate bluebirds, build a box for wrens or chickadees and that will keep them out. I don’t usually recommend discrimination in any form, but this isn’t government housing. If you don’t like bluebirds, nobody will stop you from building a box that is only sized for chickadees. It’s your call. Do you feel the power?

There are several features that your birdhouse should have. One is proper ventilation. It gets hot during the nesting season, even in Canada. Baby birds could roast without a way for trapped heat to escape. A small gap at the top of the two sides, just below the roof, will not only provide the birds with fresh air, but it will also provide you with a good excuse when you don’t cut the wood straight. Next, drill a couple of holes in the bottom of the box. More than one nest of baby birds has been lost when driving spring rain turned their nesting cavity into an indoor swimming pool.

The inside of the box needs little help from us. We don’t have to add windows, curtains, wallpaper or paint…especially paint. Never paint or stain the inside of the nest box. Baby birds have enough problems with live worms being stuffed down their throats all day without having to deal with paint fumes, too. However, the little birds could use some help getting out of the box when it is ultimately time for them to leave. Scuff up the inside of the front of the box or tack a piece of plastic screening just below the hole to give the young birds something their little claws can grasp when they finally exit the box for the first and only time.

It’s also a good idea to assemble the box with screws instead of nails. Screws allow for easy repair after a hole is chewed in the side by squirrels, woodpeckers or arboreal beavers. More importantly screws makes it easier to remove a side or top for cleaning. A nest box should be cleaned a few times a year to dump out soiled nests, broken eggs, mice, wasps or various other unwanted houseguests who may have moved in. Too bad dumping our own unwanted houseguests wasn’t as easy.

As I mentioned earlier, the key to a successful nest box is to build it the proper size; in particular making the entrance hole the correct size. I could give you these sizes and dimensions, Katie, but I only know inches and you Canadians use those weird metric measurements such as “mm,” “cm” or “CCM.” But I think I know just the book that will take you the rest of the way.

The book that has the best basic plans is the Birdhouse Book, by Donald and Lillian Stokes, that cute couple who write books on every conceivable bird topic. This book is just what you need. It has nothing but dull, plain birdhouses in it, just the kind of boxes birds love. If you follow their plans you will end up with a good, functional birdhouse and not some lame thing that looks like the SkyDome. And the best part is you won’t have to worry about some bonehead ever changing the name of your birdhouse to the Rogers Centre.