Birdhouses: Simple but difficult to get right, and sometimes home to surprises | WHIDBEY BIRDING

Above: A house wren enjoys a spider snack while perched on a post. Below: A black capped chickadee peeks out of a birdhouse.

Last month my husband and I headed south on a camping trip down through Western Nevada, Southeastern California and into Arizona. We visited wildlife refuges and stopped to bird wherever we saw activity. One destination was Prescott, Ariz., and a highly recommended campground northwest of the town.

As we set up camp, I noticed a birdhouse installed in an evergreen tree not 30 feet from our site. While we settled in, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches busily carried bits of dried grass into their house. The stubby gray and white birds called to each other with a nasal “yank” and darted back and forth from the dry grass to the house.

That birdhouse offered exactly what the nuthatches needed and was constructed to mimic a natural hole in a tree.

Later on the trip, we drove around a wetland where about 15 wooden birdhouses perched on poles over the shallow water. A pair of tree swallows occupied every house. Again, the natural wood houses matched the bird’s size and shape requirements and were situated where the birds were comfortable nesting.

I was reminded of a conversation with a nature-loving friend who said that he’d looked online at the Cornel Lab of Ornithology website to find the correct birdhouse measurements, had built and installed several houses, but was disappointed the birds weren’t using them.

He said, “I thought that if you built it they would come.”

Like my friend, most of us are aware of the need to first identify the birds you’d like to attract into a birdhouse and then follow the recommended building instructions. Or purchase a birdhouse from a reputable wild bird store. But success can be more complicated, and patience is required.

Remember that those fancy, brightly painted birdhouses that you might see in gift shops are to be left in the shops. We don’t want to set up bird houses for just any old bird to use because often the “any old bird” will be either a house sparrow or a European starling, both introduced species that we should be discouraging, rather than encouraging.

There are several local species of native birds that need enclosed spaces such as an old woodpecker hole or a human-supplied birdhouse to breed. I’ve been able to lure a number of them into birdhouses where I live outside Langley.

These include chickadees, nuthatches, Bewick’s and house wrens, which will readily settle into birdhouses of the proper dimensions. Locate them in protected areas, high enough to avoid land predators and in the habitat that these birds frequent. 

Tree and violet-green swallows prefer a more horizontal-shaped house. The swallows like open areas allowing room to swoop and soar up into the house.

I’ve observed other species happily ensconced in human-built birdhouses here on Whidbey. Friends on the South End have barn owls that breed in a specially built house that was installed high in a tree at the edge of a meadow.

I’ve monitored wood ducks, hooded mergansers and a pair of red-breasted sapsuckers breeding in houses at Earth Sanctuary. American kestrels breed in houses around Ebey’s Prairie.

In each case, the house was built to recommended specifications and installed with close attention to location. And in some cases it took several years for the birds to find them.

As my husband and I headed home on our camping trip we stopped at Modoc Wildlife Refuge in Northern California near Alturas. We birded the area and stopped at the ranger station to pick up a bird list. While I chatted with the ranger, my husband scoured the edges of the parking lot for more birds. He dragged me out to point out something quite odd.

A barn owl nesting box had been installed in a nearby tree. Yet a great-horned owl sat right next to the box. Every great horned owl nest that I’ve seen has been a large stick nest tucked into the middle or upper branches of trees. If anyone had asked, I would have firmly stated that great horned owls never nest in boxes.

So I asked the ranger. He said that for years the great horned owls have nested in a big stick nest higher up in that same tree. Earlier this spring the nest had blown down and evidently, since there wasn’t time to construct another nest, the great horned owls just moved into the barn owl box.

He was as surprised as we were.

Frances Wood can be reached at wood@whidbey.com. Craig Johnson is at backyardbirds@whidbey.com.