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Giving Shelter | Fall 2003 Out Here Magazine

Whether you build or buy birdhouses, you can encourage birds to move in

By Marti Attoun

Photography by Donnie Beauchamp

Jim Robinson gets a kick out of his backyard tenants. They sing and scold, sip and dip, and constantly eat takeout.

He's among 60 million Americans who enjoy bird watching. He also owns Nature's Niche in Neosho, Mo., a company that builds some 70 styles of bird houses and bird feeders from salvaged and recycled wood. (Many of his creations can be found in Tractor Supply stores.)

"If birds feel secure, they'll come," Robinson says. "Birds are pretty much masters of opportunity. I put one birdhouse up and the next day, a bluebird was there."

Although nature provides trees for nesting, about 30 species of birds also will nest in birdhouses, says George Harrison, a birding expert for the National Wildlife Federation's website and the author of 13 nature books.

If you want to invite birds to your yard, winter is an ideal time to begin preparing to welcome next spring's nesting birds. Cold winter days, when it's too uncomfortable to be outside, provide the perfect opportunity to build birdhouses in your workshop or garage.

Different birds require different living accommodations, so if you want to attract a particular kind of bird to your yard, find out what that species looks for in a home before you build or buy one.


Birdhouses are just a part of attracting birds to your back yard. Try these ideas to fill your yard with songbirds:

Birds are attracted to the splashing noise and movement of water, so consider adding a sprinkler, mister, or pump to the pond, birdbath, or other water source.

After clipping and pruning shrubs, don't be too anxious to clear trimmings away. Leave a brush pile on the edge of the garden or yard for protective covering for ground-inhabiting birds. Likewise, don't be in a hurry to haul off stumps, fallen logs, and dead trees, unless they're a safety hazard. Birds love these natural niches for protection from the weather and for building nests each spring and raising their young. Sparrows, juncos, towhees, quail, pheasants, and ground doves spend much of their time on the ground.

Remember to feed birds year-round, not just in fall and winter, and you'll be charmed by a different set of guests, probably with brighter breeding plumage in the summer. You may also see the young at the feeders. Birds glean at least 75 percent of their food from the wild, but they still relish a free lunch. A good menu is hulled sunflower seeds for finches; oil sunflower seeds for cardinals, blue jays, nuthatches and chickadees; cracked corn for mourning doves; and beef suet for woodpeckers. Orioles love to snack on an orange half nailed to a tree.
Place bird feeders near cover for the birds so they'll have a place to escape if threatened. Cover includes all varieties of plant life, such as flowers, shrubs, and trees.

When clipping the dog's or your own hair, save it for the birds. Chipping sparrows especially love to line their cuplike nests with hair. Their favorite is horsehair, but any will do. Hang clippings on a tree branch or fence post in a mesh bag or suet bag where it's accessible.
If you want to draw a variety of birds, provide an assortment of houses of all sizes.

House wrens, for example, need only a 1-inch diameter opening in a 4-inch-by-4-inch-by-8-inch tall box. Harrison suggests placing at least three wren bird houses in the garden area because the male will fill them with sticks, then the female will select a house for the family.
Other small birds, such as bluebirds, tree swallows, tufted titmice, and nuthatches will set up housekeeping in houses with a 1/2- to 1-inch entry.
Medium-sized houses that measure 4-inch-by-4-inch-by-18-inches tall and have 2-inch openings appeal to woodpeckers and Northern flickers. Wood ducks need a little larger opening; they require a 4-inch entrance hole.

Winter is an ideal time to build birdhouses in your workshop or garage.

Once you're ready to set your new birdhouse outside, its height above the ground must be considered, depending on what kind of bird you would like to nest in it. Downy woodpeckers nest in houses posted 12 to 25 feet up a tree trunk, whereas purple martins settle into apartment houses that are 15 to 20 feet high and set in a clearing. A wood duck house can be posted 2 to 5 feet over water or 12 to 40 feet high on a tree facing water.

Birdhouses should be stationary, except for wren houses, which can be hung from fruit trees. Other birds are skittish and usually won't tolerate swinging houses. Their nesting boxes should be attached to a tree, post, pole, or side of a house or barn. Of course, birdhouses and feeders should be placed in front of your favorite windows so you can eavesdrop and watch all the activity.
Birdhouses may look pretty with perfectly sanded and smooth wood, Robinson says, but birds prefer rough wood, especially at the entry, so they can get a toehold.

Although all birds need cover to survive, they don't all need the same kind. Bluebirds, for example, who prefer a birdhouse attached to a post.

Once you provide a yard with housing, food, and water, it won't take long for word to circulate that housing is available. As spring arrives, your yard will be aflutter with activity and color — maybe some brilliant yellow finches, bright blue jays, and red cardinals.

Before you know it, you'll be buying binoculars to get a better look at your backyard tenants.

Marti Attoun has written for Family Circle, Ladies' Home Journal, American Profile and other national magazines. She lives in Joplin, Mo.