Bird Watcher's General Store

Nest Building - 06/11/04


Dear Bird Folks:

I would like to get birds to build their nests in my yard. I have several birdhouses and I also have tons of birds. But rarely do any of the birds use my birdhouses. What am I doing wrong? -Roger, Osterville

Okay Roger,

The first thing you need to do is lower the rent. Things are tough right now and there is a limit as to what any bird, even a bird from Osterville, can afford. If dropping the price doesn't work, try advertising free cable. You would at least be guaranteed that my kids would move in.

Although I don't know what your birdhouses look like Roger, I've learned that it doesn't make much difference. Conventional wisdom tells us that birds like a simple nest box. A basic wooden box, unpainted and without the silly little perch below the hole, is what know-it-alls like me recommend. But for some reason birds rarely check with me before they choose a proper nest site. All too often I hear about birds using a birdhouse that someone picked up for a quarter at a yard sale. And the reason that it was being sold is because birds never used it.

The basic boxes are very good and I still think that they are by far the best. Yet I've seen birds living in all kinds of silly looking houses. The important thing is that your nest box, no matter what shape it is, has good ventilation, drainage holes, an easy way to clean it out and, of course, cheap rent.

Placement is another question that we get all the time. And yes, in theory, placement is important. Boxes on short, five foot high posts and placed in the open, are what is recommended. But once again the birds often take boxes that aren't in ideal locations. If those darn birds would only do what they are supposed to do.

The point of all this Roger, and there really is a point, is that you probably aren't doing anything wrong; nature is simply unpredictable. Nature doesn't always do things exactly the way we think it should. I guess that's what makes it so wonderful.

While we are on the subject of attracting nesting birds, it's important to keep in mind that only a small percentage of our nesting birds use birdhouses. Most birds build their own nest in trees or in shrubs. Having an environmentally diverse yard is far more important than having fifty birdhouses that are built to perfect specifications.

Orioles for example love tall trees, but besides having tall trees, we can help them out by putting out nesting material. By mid June orioles become less active at our feeders, but will readily come for short pieces of string and yarn. The important thing to remember here is the word "short". Don't make the same mistake that I made. Trying to help out the overworked female, I put out a three foot long piece of string. That poor bird almost hung herself trying to drag that massive string through the branches. That was ten years ago and I'm still getting letters from her lawyer.

Another thing that some nesting birds need is mud. The other day I got a call from some lady who was upset that birds were eating mud. I tried to convince her that mud was low-carb and she should try it, but she wouldn't go for it. Robins, phoebes and swallows fly down to pick up beak-fulls of mud to build their nests with. Although mud has not been in short supply this year, some years birds struggle to find it. Put out a tray of mud sometime and see what happens. If you don't get a ton of birds, you should at least get a call from your nosey neighbor.

There are a few odder things that will attract nesting birds. Tree Swallows love white feathers. If you know anyone who has domestic ducks, snag a bunch of their feathers sometime and scatter them around your yard. If there are any Tree Swallows nearby, they'll quickly scoop them up.

The last odd thing is dried snake skin. Great Crested Flycatchers love to add snake skin to their nests. Now one really knows why, they just do. If you hang out a few dried snake skins the flycatchers will love you. Hanging snake skin in your yard will not only attract flycatchers, it will make your nosey neighbor forget all about that tray of mud.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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