Dear Bird Folks,
We have several birdfeeders in our yard and now we are thinking about putting up some birdhouses. When should we do that and where should we place them?
– Ellie, W. Yarmouth, MA
Put those birdhouses out today. Or, if you have a time machine, put them out three weeks ago. Even though our spring weather has been pretty stinky, it doesn’t prevent the birds from house hunting. I’ve already had chickadees scoping out my boxes and the Tree Swallows, which came back in late March, are doing the same thing. (However, I haven’t seen the swallows lately. They probably went back south to warm up for a while, and I don’t blame them.)
People are constantly asking me how to attract “new birds” to their yards. They think offering different seeds will attract different birds, but this really isn’t the case. Instead, I suggest they try putting out a couple of birdhouses. After all, there are some birds (swallows, flycatchers, owls) that will never use a birdfeeder, but they will come to a house. BTW: Folks who are getting bluebirds for the first time, should spend less time focusing on food options and consider putting out a birdhouse, or two. Yes, bluebirds do come to feeders, but in the spring it’s all about a place to lay eggs. Really.
When it comes to putting out a birdhouse, there are two things to keep in mind. First, there are specific guidelines for each and every bird species. Secondly, sometimes birds don’t pay attention to these guidelines, Instead, they build their nests in some pretty funky places (probably just to make the experts look bad). But let’s begin with the guidelines. When it comes to placement, I always suggest that nest boxes, like feeders, should be placed where we can see them. Boxes are vital for birds, but there is also an entertainment factor. It’s fun to watch the parents feed their babies. If you place your birdhouse out of sight, you will miss all of that excitement. I suggest putting your birdhouse where you can easily see it from, say, the kitchen window, or your back deck or from your living room couch (if that’s where you spend most of your time).
Another common question is: Which is the best direction to face the entrance hole? Most conventional advice centers around prevailing winds and morning sun, but my birdhouses face an assortment of directions and I get birds in all of them. Thus, I recommend facing the hole towards your favorite viewing spot. There is something really cool about watching baby birds peering out onto the world for the first time. (Although, after the little birds see what has been going on in the world lately, they might want to crawl back inside.) How high should the box be? This one is easy. Place your box “head high” and that means your head. Birds can fly, so height isn’t an issue for them, but it is for us. We are far more likely to maintain a birdhouse if we don’t need a bucket truck to reach it.
If I were a bird, I would want my nest box to be hidden deep in the woods. But apparently I would be a lousy bird, because that’s not what they like. Surprisingly, many birds prefer to nest in the open. Boxes placed along a tree line or in a garden are more appealing to them. How should the house be mounted – on a tree or a post or a fence? Trees are the easiest (and cheapest) for us to use, but trees offer no protection from climbing predators (raccoons, cats, chipmunks). Posts are a better option, as they can be placed or moved anywhere. (Trees are much harder to move about…unless you happen to be Paul Bunyan.) Posts are also easily baffled (and by “baffled,” I don’t mean fooled). It’s easy to place a baffle on a post, which will keep the predators from climbing and raiding your box. Here’s another thing many people don’t think about. Place your birdhouses away from your feeders. I know that seems counterintuitive. After all, what’s wrong with an avian bed and breakfast? Once again, the answer has to do with predators. Feeders are magnets for hungry creatures that will also help themselves to any adjacent eggs or nestlings. And let’s not forget that birds are territorial. A chickadee, for example, doesn’t want to set up housekeeping next to a feeder where other chickadees are constantly coming and going. I like chickadees, but they don’t always dig each other.
When it comes to choosing a proper birdhouse (I know you didn’t ask this, but I could tell you were thinking it), keep it basic. A simple, plain box, which is easy to open and clean, is all you and the birds need. I realize a number of folks have their hearts set on something that looks unique and special, like a house in the shape of a Newport mansion or something designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. That’s fine with me, because the fancy houses cost more, but the birds just aren’t that fussy…or snobby.
It’s not too late to put out a birdhouse, Ellie, but you should do it soon. Also, if you can afford it, two or three boxes are better than one. That will ensure there is enough housing to go around and you won’t be mad at, say, the wrens if they push out “your” bluebirds. Finally, keep in mind that birds don’t always do what the experts think they should. So, even if you do everything right, there is no guarantee your box will get a tenant right away. If that’s the case there isn’t much you can do except be patient…or give Frank Lloyd Wright a call and see what he thinks.