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Give a bird a home ... or a laugh.

LIKE WEATHER VANES AND sundials, birdhouses can be as much garden art as garden accessory. Consider: galleries and museums display birdhouses as folk art, architects and artists design them, nature lovers build or buy them.

Why the interest? Birdhouses are simple, small enough to display up close, and easy to make, and you can sharply increase the number of birds in your garden by putting birdhouses in the right places. They even make good fund-raisers: in Washington, the Bainbridge Island Arts Council recently raised $6,000 selling birdhouses made by local artists.


The contemporary birdhouses on these two pages sample a range of materials and artistic fantasy. Such houses, from gaily painted wood to metal, are often flashy, whimsical, and on the pricey side ($75 and up), and may or may not work as living spaces for birds.

Antique birdhouses, often elaborately constructed, are now prized by collectors and very difficult to find. Look and hope, or write to American Primitive Gallery (596 Broadway, Room 205, New York 10012), which collects and sells old ones.

Most functional birdhouses are made to handle all weather; they're usually unpainted (bright colors discourage birds) and cost around $30.


Only cavity-nesting birds (ones that nest in hollows in trees) use birdhouses. Though this group includes nongarden birds like ducks, owls, kestrels, and woodpeckers, it also includes bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, swallows, and wrens.

The kind of house you install determines the kinds of birds you'll attract. But this is a most inexact science: though a birdhouse may be designed for a wren, chickadee, or bluebird, it will be fair game for a variety of birds. Hole size and shape limit which kinds of birds can get in.

Small birds like chickadees, nut hatches, and most wrens can fit in a hole that's 1 1/8 inches in diameter, 1 1/4 inches for white-breasted nuthatches. (If you use a hole larger than 1 1/8 inches, house sparrows can get in and boot the other birds out.) These birds are common around gardens that have lots of trees.

Medium-size birds like bluebirds and swallows need a nest box with a hole of 1 1/2 inches, 1 9/16 inches for mountain bluebirds. (A larger hole admits starlings, which evict or kill bluebirds and swallows.) Bluebirds are most common in semiopen country like oak savannas, orchards, Christmas tree farms, and open woodlands.

Tree and violet-green swallows accept a wider variety of habitats, often stealing houses from bluebirds. Every year, tree swallows and house wrens take over almost two-thirds of the 400 bluebird houses in Fort Lewis, Washington. Bluebird houses work best atop adjacent posts; if you mount two houses on adjacent fence posts, swallows will take one, then fight off swallows that try to take the other, leaving it open for bluebirds.

If you want swallows but live where house sparrows are a problem, make a house with a hole that's 7/8 inch tall, 2 inches wide. Swallows can squeeze through; house sparrows can,t.

If you live along the Southern California coast or in West Texas, your chances of getting medium-size birds besides starlings and house sparrows are almost nil. Stick with houses for smaller birds.

Larger birds like purple martins and flickers take boxes with 2 1/4- and 2 1/2-inch entry holes, respectively, which opens them up to aggression from house sparrows and starlings.

Purple martins nest in groups, so you can use apartments like the one pictured above. Paint the inside white; starlings don,t seem to like that. Purple martins are rare in the West but worth a try if you live near open country in Arizona, northern California, New Mexico, Texas, or western Colorado, or near open water (like Puget Sound or San Francisco Bay).

Northern flickers usually like to dig out their own nests, but sometimes yoU can attract them with a large nest box. Fill it with wood chips; they'll clean it out to make the nest.


To keep most kinds of birdhouses safe from raccoons and cats, mount them atop metal poles. If you want to put a birdhouse in a tree, hang it from a branch; don't nail it to the trunk. Keep houses away from feeders (the activity makes nesting birds nervous).

Face the entrance away from prevailing weather, and remove any perch your birdhouse came with (it's unnecessary, and house sparrows use it to heckle birds inside).

Birdhouses should be made from materials that insulate well, like 3/4 inch wood (plastic bottles and milk cartons are too thin and have poor ventilation; heat can bake chicks inside or make them fledge too early). Nest boxes need an openable side or top for easy cleaning, drain holes on the bottom, and, in hot-summer areas, ventilation holes high in the sides.

If you put up more than one, keep houses well separated and out of sight of one another. Houses must go up early, since migrant birds start returning in late February and look for nest sites soon after they arrive.


The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds, by Stephen W. Kress (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1985; $24.95), details design factors for birdhouses and includes charts listing entry hole sizes for different birds. For plans, nothing beats The Complete Book of Birdhouse Construction for Woodworkers, by Scott Campbell (Dover Publications, New York, 1984; $2).

Birdhouses are easy to find in garden centers and nurseries, and from mail-order suppliers. A source for the best bluebird houses we've seen (ones that are easy to clean and have extra-thick entry holes to keep out raccoon paws) is Cliff Dwellers, Box 29340, Shreveport, La. 71149 ($29.95 postpaid).
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Title Annotation:birdhouses
Author:McCausland, Jim
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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