A Birdhouse Needs to be More than Cute
A few years ago my children were given a cool-looking kit with the words “Build Your Own Birdhouse” written on the box. It came with a great set of little metal tools and a whole bunch of pre-cut pieces of wood which seemed like a really cool challenge to my puzzle-obsessed son. There was also a colorful paint set and a little guide to backyard birds of America tucked inside.
As a mom who loves craft projects, building things and the great outdoors, I was thrilled with this gift, and my kids and I spent a lovely, cold January afternoon putting it all together and painting it. We dutifully hung it outside and spent the spring dreaming of the birds that would soon move in.
All that year nothing ever visited our little wooden box, but that turned out to be a good thing, since the box itself began to disintegrate very quickly. Within just a few weeks of being put up, the sides began to warp. The paint faded so that the entire thing took on a dull, grey hue, and then by May the roof caved in slightly.
By the end of the summer it looked like a piece of trash had blown across our yard and attached itself to our fence. My kids were completely disenchanted and perhaps felt even a bit betrayed.
“Maybe if the house was better, the birds would like it more,” my son said.
“I want some birds to have babies there,” my daughter decided.
So when autumn rolled around, I went looking for a better house. Craft stores, toy stores, nature centers, and even the store where lots of our neighbors bought their bird seed all seemed to have the same kit we’d been given the year before or variations on the same theme. There was always a lot of thin plywood involved, and not much effort made to match what the birds actually wanted from a house.
Online I found lots of directions for building bird houses from high quality lumber. Some of these were really great, and many of them came right off of birding association websites. Unlike many of the build-your-own kits, I knew the dimensions given would be correct for our local native species, and that the size of the entrance holes would not allow undesirable English sparrows to move in and take over. I could see my son or daughter taking these projects on in the future for sure, maybe even as science or art projects later in elementary school. But as the mother of a five-year-old and a three-year-old I quickly realized these were way out of our current league.
I contemplated building some of these myself. But this did not seem right. If I did the construction, it would be another project of mine, and I wanted something they could take ownership of and pride in. I wanted it to be their birdhouse more than mine. Besides, I am no woodworker.
One afternoon I found myself in a store, looking over the birdhouses for the ump-teenth time. There were so many lovely structures to choose from there, made of great, unpainted cedar. Scanning the wall displays I began to see them all as blank canvases, ready for my children’s small hands and hearts. What the heck, I thought. If we can’t build it then we’ll paint it.
And so I plunked down some cash and headed home with a bird house tucked under my arm. At nearly $30 it was not a cheap, but I knew that the thick, white cedar would hold up well for many years. And I trusted that the company had carefully designed the house specifically for house wrens or possibly chickadees. This was a good thing because I knew both of those kinds of birds would do well in our type of backyard and would probably be willing to nest on our fence.
At home I laid everything out to make this birdhouse unique. For color I chose fabric paint, not because it had any special environmental significance but because we had a lot of it leftover from a past craft project and I knew it could hold up to the outdoor elements pretty well. I also knew it wouldn’t give off fumes like some other exterior paints we had on the leftover shelf in the basement — good for the birds and the kids.
I gave each kid a brush and we got started. My son got the left and my daughter got the right side and they both carefully and earnestly began the important work of making their nestbox look beautiful. Once it was dry I got out the ladder and climbed up to the top of the fence to replace the old heap of plywood that was still sadly suspended there.
By February that year we began to see chickadees checking the box out as a potential home. From the bedroom windows we were able to look down and see it all happening each day, and by early spring we were shouting to one another, “They’ve gone in again! They’re taking in twigs and building that nest!” Sometimes my daughter would tell us she was sure that it was the paint job that had made the difference. Our beautiful artwork on the house, she would declare, was what had made them want to live in our yard. I knew differently, but didn’t dare correct her.
As the warm days grew longer it was wonderful to hear the baby birds go crazy each time their parents would come to the entrance of the house with an insect to eat. At first the peep! peep! peep! sounds were tiny, weak and distant, but as time wore on they grew stronger and more insistent until one day we realized the babies had fledged.
A few years have passed and its time for me to replace that old painted house with a new one. Wasps took over the ceiling of it last year and I started to notice that the top of the box was cracked. That thing lasted six years — not bad for a birdhouse.
In my next post I’ll post some pictures of our new birdhouse, and give some details about finding the right birdhouse for a small urban yard. I’ll also discuss some ways you can deter wasps from taking over in your nesting boxes.
Late winter is the best time to put up a house for many species of Eastern birds, and I’ve already seen a pair of chickadees checking out the real estate in my yard…
(Some parts of this article previously appeared in the Takoma Voice newspapers as a part of my Sligo Naturalist column.)
Other posts you might find interesting:
Stop Raking Leaves, Start Seeing More Birds
Owls in Silver Spring
Barn Swallows Under the Beltway