A house made for the birds

Attraction: If you build it (or buy it), they will come - wrens and chickadees and titmice and other graceful warblers who like a fit place to nest.

January 03, 1999|By Jenny Upchurch | Jenny Upchurch,Knight Ridder/Tribune

This may seem more the season for bird feeders than birdhouses. But what better way is there to spend the weekends of winter than in preparing birdhouses, whether you make your own or buy from a shop or catalog?

You won't find a shortage of birdhouses to buy or build - many so pretty that you hate to put them outside.

Birdhouses are used as accents indoors or on decks and patios, part of the trend of using outdoor elements, from birdhouses to benches, to bring a rustic look to interiors.

But if you want a house to be as pleasing to a bird's-eye view as to yours, choose carefully. Bright-color paint often deters birds, but earth-tone paints and stains or naturally weathered wood can be attractive to people and to birds. Embellishments such as copper roofs or decorative molding won't bother birds either.

``Just because it's a pretty house doesn't mean that birds won't go there,'' says Bert McClard of the Wild Bird Center, a specialty store in Wichita, Kan. ``The most important thing is the right-size hole.''

Different sizes of entry holes will determine which birds will nest in a house. But you first need to look around your yard to see what sort of bird your habitat is likely to attract.

Rivers or streams with thick, wooded areas attract chickadees and titmice. The bluebird is attracted to newer subdivisions and semirural settings. Bluebirds want open grassy areas with shorter trees, preferably near a pond or other water.

New homes built around golf courses or walking paths or a cluster of large-lot homes are great sites to create bluebird trails, in which several nesting boxes are strung about 300 feet apart.

The separation is necessary because nesting birds are fiercely territorial. So, don't place any nest boxes near a bird feeder or too close to one another in your yard.

Generally, you can expect about one family of nesting birds in a typical yard, says Jim Mason, a naturalist with the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

But you may have to put up more than one house to attract a pair, especially with wrens. The male wren typically scouts out an area, placing a few twigs in each of several spots he likes. Then the female checks out his choices and selects one.

Where you place a box in a yard can determine what kind of bird it attracts. Wrens and chickadees use houses with small entry holes. But a wren wants a home in a shaded but bright area without a lot of leaves, McClard says, while a chickadee would like a secluded house tucked into a thick evergreen.

Most birds prefer a box securely fastened to a pole or to the side of a tree or house, although wrens will accept hanging houses. Most nesting boxes can be placed anywhere from 5 to 12 feet high. Purple-martin boxes need to be 12 to 16 feet high.

When the house is put up or its hole unblocked can also determine what bird nests in it.

``The worst thing you can do is leave them up year-round,'' Mason says, because sparrows and starlings will move in before the purple martins return in the spring.

If you have bluebird houses, expel any sparrows. If you don't, they will destroy the bluebird nests.

Access to the inside of the box is crucial so you can expel unwanted nesting birds and clean out old nests yearly. For birds that raise more than one brood a season, such as bluebirds, you'll need to clean out the box after each nesting.

For woodpeckers, such as the flicker, fill the box with shavings or wood chips to let these excavators satisfy the urge to dig out a cavity.

Along with putting up houses, you'll need to make your area bird-friendly by providing water, food and cover.

Then, sit back and enjoy watching the birds - and the time - fly by.

Some do's and don'ts of building a birdhouse:

Don't

* Use chemically-treated wood

* Add a perch

* Paint or stain the interior

* Place nesting box within 20 feet of a bird feeder

Do

* Target birds with the size of the hole

* Limit houses, and space widely

* Clean out and disinfect boxes yearly

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