Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Some Birds Like Unusual Nesting Places

Dear Bird Folks,

For years I’ve been trying to get birds to build a nest in my yard. I’ve even made several birdhouses, but have had no luck. Then today I discovered a nest in the cover of my propane tank. I think it belongs to a wren. My question is: Why would a wren build its nest on my propane tank instead of in one of my birdhouses?

– Joe, Chatham, MA


No way, Joe,

There is no way you, I or anyone else ever could explain what goes on in a wren’s brain. They are notorious for nesting in crazy places. Straw hats, bike baskets, old shoes and even cow skulls are just a few of their unusual nesting sites. And just when you think you have them figured out, you’ll find a nest in some new weird place. Trying to explain a wren’s thought process is like trying to understand this year’s election. Some things just can’t be explained.

A while back a customer came in with a coffee can. The coffee can, which he used for nail storage, had been in his garage for years. One day he went into his garage to get a few nails, only to discover that a Carolina Wren had built a nest in the can. At this point, the baby wrens had already grown up and flown away, so the guy offered the nail/nest can to me, which I readily accepted. (Legally, I wasn’t supposed to accept the nest, but I really needed the nails.)

One of my favorite wren stories happened about five years ago when Bill called me. (I actually never knew the guy’s name, but calling him “Bill” makes telling the story easier.) Bill told me that a wren was building a nest in his “underwear drawer.” (Yes, you read that right.) Apparently, Bill slept with his window open and like most men Bill wasn’t real good about keeping his dresser drawers closed. Early that morning Bill woke up to the sound of fluttering. In the dim light he could see a wren depositing dried grass into the top drawer of his dresser. After I laughed for a minute or so, I suggested to Bill that as soon as the bird flew outside, he should shut his window (and close his dresser drawers, and buy a screen for his window). To which Bill replied, “No, way. I’m enjoying having the wrens in my bedroom. I just called because I wanted to share my story with someone.” Wow! How about that? I’ve never met Bill, but he remains one of my personal idols. Too much of my day is spent listening to people complain about birds waking them up in the morning, or pooping on their decks or stealing a few of their blueberries, etc. It was super refreshing to hear from someone who chose to simply enjoy a fun natural experience, instead of grumbling about it. A big thumbs up to Bill. (Although, the next time Bill wants to have a fun natural experience in his bedroom, he might want to consider doing something other than watching wrens.)

Wrens aren’t alone with their crazy nesting habits. Early this spring a couple brought in a photo of a robin that had built a nest in their rain gutter. Bad place for a nest, right? Not really. Based on the photo, the gutter babies were fat, healthy and nearly ready to fly. It seems mother robin did a better job of waterproofing her nest than the guy who built my basement. Robins might not mind getting their nests wet, but Rough-winged Swallows want things dry. A few summers ago, a pair of swallows built a nest in the undercarriage of a tractor-trailer that was parked behind the liquor store next to my shop. For about a week I watched the hardworking swallows as they flew in between the truck’s giant tires, carrying nesting material into a hole in the rusted frame. Things were going along great until one day someone from the liquor store came out and drove both the truck and the nest away. (I’ll bet swallows hate when that happens.) No worries, though. The adaptable birds simply flew over to my parking lot and built a new nest in the framework of a different truck. This new truck, a storage truck, never moves, so this time the nest was totally safe. And as it turned out, the loss of the first nest was actually a good thing. I mean, what baby bird wants to be raised in the back of a liquor store?

Here’s one last crazy nest story. Early one morning I was driving past a bank when I noticed a pair of House Finches building a nest in the bank’s night deposit box, or at least they were trying to. As I sat and watched, the birds repeatedly placed nesting material onto the door of the box, only to have it fall to the ground every time someone made a deposit. Undeterred, the birds simply picked up the material and started all over again. This went on for quite a while, but eventually the finches were forced to move on when the bank manager came out and told them they had to leave, unless they opened an account…with a minimum balance.

I wouldn’t give up on your birdhouses, Joe. Eventually, cavity-loving chickadees, bluebirds or titmice will find one of them. In the meantime, enjoy the wrens on your propane tank. If you’d like to encourage even more birds, you could try leaving your window and underwear drawer open. After hearing Bill’s story, I wanted to try that at my house, but my wife wouldn’t let me. Probably because it was her underwear drawer I tried to get the birds to use. Some people are so uptight.