Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

It’s migration and nesting season. And as backyard birding thoughts turn to birdhouses, I am considering putting a birdhouse or two in my city garden. 

Rob Carter of LoveNest Birdhouses in Atlanta, Georgia has graciously offered to answer our questions about choosing and placing birdhouses in our backyards and habitat gardens. 

Full disclosure, LoveNest Birdhouses will be gifting one of their WiFi video camera birdhouses to me, so I can actually try having a birdhouse in my urban backyard.

If you buy a birdhouse from Rob at LoveNest Birdhouses, I’ll receive a small commission which will go to support this blog.

And here’s Rob. 

Bluebird house in a clearing in the woods. Early spring.
Bluebird house in a clearing in the woods. Early spring.

Contents

Basic Birdhouse Questions

Q: Do birds actually use birdhouses? 

A: They really do! And, the need for birdhouses has increased greatly due to the reduction in naturally-occurring places for many bird species to build their nests and raise their young.

Q: Which types of birds use birdhouses?

A: The birds that use birdhouses are known as “cavity nesters” – meaning species that build their nests in enclosed cavities. There are roughly 80 cavity-nesting bird species in North America, including a variety of woodpeckers, owls, songbirds, falcons, and ducks. Certain birds like woodpeckers create their own cavities by excavating holes in trees and sometimes (sorry homeowners!) other wooden structures. Other birds are “secondary” cavity nesters, meaning they use cavities created by other birds.

Q: What is the purpose of birdhouses?

A: Birdhouses provide critical habitat for cavity-nesting birds which rely on a supply of viable locations for nesting and fledging. Birdhouses increase the supply of available cavities capable of protecting nests from predators and the elements.

Residential development and environmental challenges over recent decades have had a very negative impact on bird populations. Birdhouses offer important support to counter these threats.

Q: Do birds use birdhouses in the winter?

A: They do! Birdhouses offer shelter for birds seeking an enclosed space where they can protect themselves from cold, wind and wet weather. They will often congregate together in the same space and generate heat by fluffing their feathers and shivering.  

barn swallow and nest box
Barn Swallow nest box at John Heinz NWR at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Urban Birdhouses

Q: Rob, I live on the outskirts of a large city (Philadelphia, Pa). Is there anything us urban birders should know? 

A: The big thing I would say is that birdhouses are perhaps most critical in more urban environments where there are so few naturally occurring cavities to support cavity-nesting species.

Dead trees and limbs which are really helpful for excavating cavities are undesirable and/or unsafe for homeowners and tend to be taken down, eliminating viable habitat. And, in urban environments, they are almost nonexistent.

The result is that cavity nesting species tend to dwindle and vacate those areas. Plentiful birdhouses can help reduce the trend of dwindling urban bird populations.

Q: What about discouraging Starlings and House Sparrows? 

A: House sparrows are a widespread, invasive and particularly aggressive species that competes for food and habitat with other species like popular songbirds. For example, house sparrows are known to attack adult bluebirds and their offspring, and even destroy eggs.

Because they are not a native species in North America, along with starlings, house sparrows are not protected by law, and you are allowed to destroy their nests and eggs.

Paying attention to the type of bird food and bird feeder one puts out can discourage house sparrows from frequenting one’s yard, as can the removal of wet (and dry/dusty) birdbath locations. A birdhouse without a perch is less attractive to house sparrows, and waiting until early April to put up your birdhouse can help since that is often after the time house sparrows have chosen nesting locations.

If you find a house sparrow or starling has begun to occupy your birdhouse, simply cover up the entrance hole for a few days and wait for the bird to go elsewhere.

Generally, starlings need a birdhouse portal 1.5 inches wide to enter, and house sparrows need 1.25 inches. You could consider using a smaller portal such as 1.125 to discourage unwanted species, though that will also eliminate certain more popular birds such as bluebirds from using the birdhouse. 

Nest in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia
Birdhouse in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia

Choosing a Good Birdhouse 

Q: What makes a good birdhouse?

A: Generally speaking, a “good” birdhouse would be any one that allows the occupants to successfully build a nest and fledge their young. Beyond that, different birds prefer different size birdhouses and different size entrance holes (portals).   

Q: How do I choose the right birdhouse?

A: There are countless birdhouse designs out there. Many are delightfully creative and fun in their appearance. That said, many designs are not necessarily conducive to producing the best outcome for the birds or attracting the species desired by the person putting out the birdhouse.

If you just want a birdhouse in your yard and don’t care what species occupies it, then most birdhouses will suffice, and chances are you may get a bird of some sort to occupy it.

Otherwise, if you want to attract particular species, research what nestbox and portal dimensions are most well suited to those species and purchase a birdhouse that conforms to those specifications.

Beyond dimensions, the structure of the birdhouse can play an important role in keeping the nest dry and discouraging insects and rot.

Q: Does it matter what color a birdhouse is?

A: Generally, any birdhouse is likely to attract an occupant. However, birdhouses that are more natural in their colors and material are more likely to be preferred by birds looking for a suitable nesting location. 

Q: Do birds like a hanging or swinging birdhouse?

A: A birdhouse should be mounted in a manner that is stable and prevents it from becoming unstable in wind. 

Q: What size holes for what size birds?

A: Here are some common size entrance holes (portals) for popular cavity-nesting species:

  • 1 1/8 inch [chickadee, house wren, prothonotary warbler]
  • 1 ¼ inch [nuthatch, titmouse, downy woodpecker]
  • 1 ½ [eastern bluebird, Carolina wren, hairy woodpecker]
  • 1 9/16 [western bluebird]

Q: Are some birdhouse materials bad for the birds? 

A: Bear in mind that any color applied to a birdhouse which constitutes a paint or a stain may contain chemicals which are harmful to birds, and therefore not a good idea. Be sure to check whether the material used is safe.

For example, our LoveNest Birdhouses are built with long-lasting, insect-repelling cedar, and we use no paints or stains.

 

Attracting Birds 

Q: How do I attract birds to a birdhouse?

A: Having a supply of desirable food somewhat nearby can make a big difference – both in the form of traditional bird feeder food like sunflower seeds as well as items like suet and mealworms (great for attracting bluebirds).

Nearby water like a birdbath can be helpful, as well as shrubs and plantings that offer a sense of privacy and a source of nesting materials.

That said, don’t place your birdhouse too near any birdfeeder or birdbath because activity there of too many birds can cause territorial conflict and dissuade nesting birds from choosing that location.

Q: What do I put inside a birdhouse?

A: We would argue: nothing! Birds are very picky about what materials they want to use in building a nest. What one bird might find helpful, another may find a deterrent.

Instead of placing anything inside the nest box, we recommend making some good nest building materials available somewhat nearby for birds to choose from.

Good options would be: a pile of twigs; grass clippings; pine needles; clumps of pet hair (which can be hung up in an empty suet feeder for cleanliness and easy access). See Put Out Nesting Materials March 1

Placing a Birdhouse 

Q: Where should you place a birdhouse?

A: Generally, most birds prefer relatively sunny locations that may also benefit from some afternoon shade. It is considered a best practice to have the front entrance facing east, opposite prevailing wind direction, and away from any bird feeder location.

Bluebirds and some other species prefer a birdhouse location that is accessible across a large open field of low grass, while other species prefer a more secluded location in the vicinity of nearby shrubs and trees. Place the birdhouse at least 5 feet above the ground.  

 

Q: How many birdhouses can I fit in a backyard? How far apart should birdhouses be placed?

A: The answer here depends on the specific birds involved. Some birds are less sensitive than others to the distance between nesting locations and can handle as little as 15 feet apart. Most prefer distances more like 50, 100 or 200 feet.

Generally speaking, the more you can work to keep the nesting locations apart from one another physically and visually, the better. Some birds, like wrens, will fill up “competing” nest boxes with material just to keep other birds from nesting there if they feel their territory is threatened. 

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) leaving cavity nest.

Birdhouse maintenance 

Q: How and when should I clean a birdhouse?

A: A birdhouse should be cleaned out right after any new crop of baby birds has fledged. It’s best to take the birdhouse down, remove any nesting material, and thoroughly scrub the interior surfaces where the nest was located using a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.

This will ensure the nest box provides a fresh and healthy environment for the birds you want to attract. It can also be a good idea to clean the box again right before nesting season each year (around February-March).

With proper maintenance, you may find that the birdhouse is used by nesting birds multiple times each year from March through June and during the rest of the year for roosting.

Q: What other maintenance should I do?

A: Be sure to make sure the birdhouse is in good shape structurally and does not have any hazardous conditions present, such as an insecure mounting connection, protruding screws/nails, rotten wood, or insect infestation. 

Q: How do we protect the birdhouses from predators like opossum, raccoons, cats, etc. What about rodents, large and small?

A: Placement on a tree or fence is not recommended. Placing the birdhouse on a dedicated post or pole can make it difficult for predators to access, as can placement up high on the wall of a house or other structure impossible for a predator to climb.

The addition of a pole/post baffle underneath the birdhouse can be very helpful. Additionally, the smaller the entrance hole (portal) of the birdhouse, the more difficult for a predator to achieve success. 

 

Tell Us About LoveNest Birdhouses? 

Q: Can you tell us about your birdhouses? 

A: The idea for the LoveNest came from my then teenage son asking for a birdhouse with a camera in it for Christmas nine years ago. Our family had so much fun and were so fascinated watching that eventually I decided to create a business making them for other people.

The birdhouses are made of long-lasting, insect-repelling cedar with no harmful paints or stains, and they are built to last for many years. They come as fully assembled product, designed specifically for capturing all the activity inside and outside the birdhouse (the LoveNest comes in 1 and 2 camera versions).

The product features high quality, state-of-the-art electronics and easy-to-use software for viewing and recording the birds. The quality of the LoveNest experience is far superior compared with trying to add a stand-alone camera to a birdhouse not designed for the purpose.

The LoveNest also features the ability to have the birdhouse plugged in 24/7 to maintain year-round viewing without the need for inconvenient battery removal/charging.

That said, the birdhouse can operate on its own internal battery for extended periods of time depending on the amount of bird activity and the software settings used. We encourage people who are interested to visit our website and watch some of the videos posted there.

Q: Where can we find your birdhouses?

A: Our website is www.lovenestbirdhouses.com  

Q: Are your birdhouses handmade?

A: They are! And we take great pride in making our product by hand right here in the United States. 

Q: How does a video camera add to the bird watching experience?

A: There is so much fascinating information to learn about birds. But without the ability to witness them up close as they live their lives, much of that remains a mystery. A video camera birdhouse gives viewers a wonderful window into the lives of these fascinating creatures. 

Q: What should I teach my children about birdwatching with birdhouses?

A: The future of our planet depends on future generations caring about the well-being of other species with whom we share the planet.

Witnessing the behavior of birds as they raise their young in our backyard birdhouses offers an exceptional learning experience about what we all share in common, and it enhances our motivation to support the natural world around us.

Maintaining a birdhouse for our local birds involves us directly in being caretakers of nature. Raising children who value this role is essential if we wish to wind up with a population that works actively to preserve the environment.  

Eastern Bluebird perched on birdhouse
Eastern Bluebird and birdhouse (courtesy US Fish &Wildlife Service;Dr.Thomas G. Barnes/University of Kentucky)

Conclusion

Whew! Rob did a great job answering our questions. I learned that a birdhouse is useful all-year round. You can put up a birdhouse anytime and join bird conservation efforts. 

Please support backyard bird conservation and this blog by purchasing you bird house from LoveNestBirdhouses.com (Made in the U.S.A.!).

More Information on LoveNest Birdhouses

LoveNestBirdhouses.com

See videos of birds in LoveNest Birdhouses at “The Secret Lives of Birds” on LoveNestBirdhouses.com

More FAQs on LoveNest Birdhouses 

More Information Attracting Backyard Birds

Cavity Nesters

Put Out Nesting Materials March 1

Places to Raise Young – Creating Your Backyard Habitat

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

2 comments

  1. This was a fabulous article. I learned quite a bit about bird houses.

    • Hi Marian, I am so glad the information is helpful. Didn’t Rob do a great job?

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