What gardener doesn’t like to attract birds to their garden? Both for their beauty, their song, their fascinating movements … and their ability to control pests? Installing a nesting box (bird house) therefore seems likes a good idea. And garden centers and hardware stores sell a wide range of models! But once installed in the garden, most of these birdhouses either attract no birds, or if they do, only ubiquitous house sparrows and starlings, not the colorful local species you really want. What went wrong?
First, it’s important to understand from the start that only a small minority of birds will ever accept to live in bird house. Most species prefer to make their own nest, be it in the fork of a tree, in shrub, on the ground, on a cliff, etc., depending on the species. Essentially, the few birds that will accept an actual nesting box are species that, in nature, prefer to nest in natural tree cavities: wrens, nuthatches, some swallows, etc.
Secondly, even birds that will nest in a bird house have very clear preferences about what that house should be like: it needs a certain size (neither too small nor too big), just the right size of opening, to be at such and such a height, and an appropriate environment (open field, forest edge, deep forest, etc.). Most commercial birdhouses—with their attractive colors, small windows decorated with curtains, and a “Home Sweet Home” sign, etc.—only attract sparrows. Desirable birds generally prefer simple nest boxes, made of unpainted wood or in fairly drab brown or gray colors: in other words, something closer to a tree trunk than to a gingerbread house!
Here are a few things to remember if you want a birdhouse that will attract the right birds.
• Nest boxes fitted with a perch right under the opening are not recommended: they tend to attract house sparrows;
• Few birds will inhabit a birdhouse with multiple compartments: most are territorial and prefer independent birdhouses … and even those should be spaced well away from neighboring nesting boxes;
• One of the few birds that does nest in colonies and that will willing inhabit an appropriate multiple compartment nesting box, the purple martin (Progne subis), is mostly found in the Eastern United States, only very locally in Canada and elsewhere in the US, and not at all in Europe. In addition, it must have an abundance of flying insects nearby. So you basically have to install it in the country near a lake, river or stream where gnats, flies and mosquitoes are abundant. Because they are almost always installed in the wrong places, most purple martin houses remain unoccupied … except by starlings;
• A good bird house must be easy to open for its annual cleaning, without which it will become infested with mites, lice and other insects predators that can kill baby birds;
• To protect against predators (squirrels, raccoons, etc.) that can reach into the nesting box to grab baby birds, consider equipping it with a protective tunnel like the Bird Guardian.
For more information on nesting boxes that really will attract birds, try the following:
For North American readers:
European readers need to try a European source of information, such as the British Trust for Ornithology.
Elsewhere in the world, check with local birding associations … because you always have to choose a birdhouse to match your local species.