Dear Bird Folks,
We have several active birdfeeders in our yard and we are now thinking about putting up some birdhouses as well. Do you have any advice about doing that?
– Tom, Harwich, MA
I remember you, Tom,
In case anyone who’s not Tom has forgotten, last week he asked for birdhouse advice, but I was too excited about my own birding news to answer his question. I promised that this would be his week, unless something else exciting happened. And when you think about it, what’s more exciting than a discussion about birdhouses? I say nothing, especially if you happen to be a bird…or Tom.
To begin with, I’d like to state the obvious: birdhouses are where birds build a nest and raise a family. Birdhouses should not be confused with birdfeeders. Feeders are where they eat. That seems like unnecessary information, but you’d be surprised how many people buy a birdhouse and then ask, “Where do I put the food?” I also have to remind folks that only a small percentage of our birds will actually use a birdhouse. Cardinals, jays, orioles and goldfinches are all wonderful backyard birds, but they’ll have no use for your birdhouse. They’d rather build their nests on a tree branch or inside a bush. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on.
The birds you can expect or a least hope to attract with a traditional birdhouse include, chickadees, titmice, House Wrens, Tree Swallows, nuthatches and, of course, the Holy Grail of birdhouse birds, bluebirds. Which of these species ultimately uses your house depends upon its design, your habitat, and, of course, luck (mostly luck).
When it comes to buying a birdhouse, there’s often a conflict between esthetics and functionality. Historically, cavity-nesting birds seek old woodpecker holes or other natural tree cavities. Therefore, it stands to reason that a nest box should look as natural as possible. But that doesn’t sit well with some people. They want their birdhouse to look like a cute cottage, or maybe an elaborate church or an ornate castle of some sort (I blame The Crown for that). For years I’ve made fun of these people, insisting that birds want something simple and not an outrageous monstrosity. It turns out my claim isn’t totally accurate. Birds, much like people, have varied tastes and some birds will occasionally nest in an outrageous monstrosity…just to make me look bad.
Even with that said, I still recommend simple birdhouses. Basic houses are cheaper to buy, easy to install and easier to maintain. Plus, if a woodpecker, squirrel or storm damages a simple nest box, it can be quickly patched with a scrap of wood. But if a storm takes out the hot tub and wraparound porch on your trophy birdhouse, you’ll likely need to hire a professional contractor to fix it, and good luck getting one of those guys to show up. The key features of any birdhouse include drainage holes on the bottom, ventilation holes at the top, easy access for cleaning and no perch on the front. I have no idea who started this perch thing, but it wasn’t a bird. Natural cavities don’t have perches and birds never complain about it. Forget the perch.
The next thing to discuss is location. I have several boxes lining the edges of the unkempt lawn in my backyard. I can see all of them from inside my house and this way I know which boxes are being used. The easiest and cheapest places to mount your houses are on the side of isolated trees. The birds will readily use these boxes, but there is a downside. Tree mounted boxes allow easy access to a whole host of predators, especially raccoons. Placing a box on a metal post is somewhat safer, but not totally. Predators can still climb poles. I have raccoon baffles on all of my poles and they keep the nestlings safe, but those setups are expensive. It’s your call.
Which direction should the opening face is a common question and I don’t think it’s a matter that has ever been clearly settled. I have boxes facing every direction and they all have been used. Again, seeing the action is the most important thing for us, so face the opening towards your favorite viewing location. And remember, when it comes to nesting, birds are territorial, so keep your house away from your feeders. What about height? I mount my boxes about six feet high. Songbirds aren’t fussy about the height and I don’t like climbing ladders. Six feet high works just fine.
With few exceptions (House Wrens), birds like a stable home life, so a house swinging from a tree branch likely won’t be used. Also, houses made of ceramic or metal can overheat, especially if placed in the sun. I’d avoid those. Speaking of avoiding, it seems like a nice gesture to buy your friends a big fancy birdhouse (aka, outrageous monstrosity). But unless you plan to also install it, you are just creating a lot of work for your friends, while not helping their birds much either. Stick to the basics. Your friends and their birds will appreciate it.
My advice is to keep things simple, Tom. Elaborate houses are okay for a conversation piece, but you can buy several simple boxes for the price of one fancy one. And the more boxes you put up, the greater variety of birds you can attract. But if you decide to go the fancy route and put up a house with a wraparound porch and a hot tub, let me know. The birds might not want to use the hot tub, but I sure will.