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Bird Houses and Your Responsibilities

Updated on January 13, 2016
Sherry Thornburg profile image

Writer, photographer and birding enthusiast, Sherry Thornburg writes about birding and birding related topics.

If you are looking at this hub, you likely love birds. You may have a lovely yard or apartment patio where you have set up a fountain or bird bath. You would have one or several feeders out and have learned what to fill them with for the types of birds in your area. If you have a large yard, you may have even taken up the call to stop using insecticides or herbicides in your yard and may even have a wildlife habitat certification. You could also be logging your sightings on some of the many birding internet sites for citizen science data collection. Now, you want to go to the next step, putting up a birdhouse.

I caught the bug to have a birdhouse recently when a House Wren repeatedly tried to make a nest in my garage. It finally sneaked in and set up a nest where we didn’t notice: behind some spray cans in a paint bucket I had up on a shelf. I removed the spray cans and let her have her way until the babies fledged. They were so adorable. Seeing baby birds will make almost anyone want to have birdhouses.

Carolina Wren Nesting in a Paint Can
Carolina Wren Nesting in a Paint Can | Source
Carolina Wren Chicks
Carolina Wren Chicks | Source

BUT WAIT ONE . . .

Birdhouses are a wonderful idea. They offer cavity nesters (80 species) a place to have babies. Species such as the Bluebird have a rough time competing for nesting space. Wouldn’t it be great to put up several Bluebird houses or even a Purple Martin Condo? It would be helping the birds, right?

But first, consider some questions.

  • What birds in your area will come into your yard?
  • Where would be the right place to put the nesting box?
  • Do you know what the upkeep involved is?
  • Do you know how to keep predators out?

These are not simple questions with simple answers. You do have to know what birds in your area will benefit and what dangers to your nesting birds to watch for. In taking this step, you will be going proactive as a birder. No more being a passive onlooker. You are about to create a partnership.

  • If you want Eastern Screech Owls the nest goes 10 feet or more up. Hosting Owls are will provide rodent and insect control that will protect your property and gardens. Baby owls can eat from two to four rodents a night.
  • Your local barn owl, on the other hand, will need a height of 20 to 25 feet.
  • Carolina Chickadees need a more manageable 5 to 15 feet, but will want a box placed around hardwood trees offering 40% to 60% shade. Most likely, you already have these friendly birds in your neighborhood.
  • The Bluebird wants a birdhouse on a sturdy pole 5 feet off the ground.

Never place a birdhouse on a fence, a tree or other structure as this invites climbing predator problems and make sure you know the entry hole size needed and consider attaching entry guards to help keep out trouble makers.


Birdhouse Inspections

After the birdhouse is up, you will need to keep an eye on it. Direct inspections are needed to verify that eggs are doing well. It also will warn you against problems such as ant infestations or other birds trying to take over. When making these inspections, walk up near the box, make several sounds so the bluebirds hear you coming, and then tap gently on the side of the box. Usually, the female will fly out. But, sometimes, mother will remain on the nest when you open the box! Wait until she leaves to do the inspection. Stop inspections after 10 or 12 days as the chicks will be close to flight ready. You won't want them fledging prematurely.

Fable Warning: Birds will not abandon their site because of these inspections and they will not abandon their chicks if you have to pick them up to clean out ants or other problems.

Besides the care needed when the birdhouse is in use, there is also a cleaning schedule to follow between seasons. That is dependent on the type of bird you host and their nesting season. Nesting sites should be thoroughly cleaned before and after nesting to keep down disease and parasites.

The Bruce Company Explains Birdhouse Cleaning

Upkeep and Predator Control

Predators are a major problem for birds whether they nest in the wild or in a birdhouse.

What predators are we talking about?

  • Other Birds
  • Squirrels
  • Cats
  • Snakes
  • Raccoons

Those are just the most common dangers to nesting pairs. Stovepipe baffles can help when the nest box is on a pole. But some predators are very intelligent or have no problem getting around that. Squirrels will leap from trees, nearby roof tops, etc. Raccoons are notorious problem solvers. Other birds are a different and more sticky problem.

Landlord/Tenant Problems - Birds You May Not Want

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act specifically prohibits interfering with nesting birds, so if a woodpecker decides to set up housekeeping, you won’t have much of a choice but to host them. House Sparrows and Starlings which are the most aggressive nesting box users and are listed as invasive non-native species, not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so getting rid of them isn’t illegal.

These birds are known to destroy nests, eggs and even kill adult birds that occupy a space they want. Small entrance holes will keep out Starlings, but not Sparrows. Getting rid of sparrows may require clearing out their building materials repeatedly, removing and destroying eggs, or setting up traps to catch the adults and then . . . yeah, getting rid of them permanently. Not a happy thought, but neither is keeping watch on your invited guest to keep away the uninvited gate crashers that would kill them and take over the property.


Abandoned Nest

Abandoned Nest - Two sets of adults using two backyard feeders abandoned their nesting sites. Possibly, they were forced away by competing birds. Only one birdhouse had eggs.
Abandoned Nest - Two sets of adults using two backyard feeders abandoned their nesting sites. Possibly, they were forced away by competing birds. Only one birdhouse had eggs. | Source

Know Before You Host Birds

This isn’t an activity for the faint-hearted or tender-hearted. Because of this, I don’t keep nesting boxes myself. I do, however, hear all the wonderful stories of happy nest box landlords as well as their heart breaking stories of invasions, lost eggs, and finding dead birds.

Next time your child comes home proudly presenting you with a shop project birdhouse, think carefully about what you will be getting into by setting it out.

Are you ready for that step? Wonderful!

If you are not, take the time to learn more about the doing so you will be fully prepared when you are.

Resources:

For more in depth information on keeping nesting boxes, visit the Cornellab of Ornithology’s Nest Watch information. It is packed with many more tips and facts on keeping nesting boxes and birdhouses.

© 2015 Sherry Thornburg

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