In the Garden:
Provide nesting materials as well as nest boxes to attract birds to your yard.
Build It and the Birds Will Come
In spite of the recent record-breaking snowstorm that barreled up the Ohio River valley, the birds are singing their spring songs and doing ... well ... what birds do as the air turns soft and warm. A friend of mine already has bluebirds setting up housekeeping in a couple of new abodes. Still, it' not too late to improve the housing market for our winged friends (the early bird, as it were, is the great horned owl, nesting in January or February,and the serious laggard is the goldfinch, which waits to nest until late summer). Whether providing nest boxes for the wildlife accustomed to old hollow trees, or adding bits of fiber or other materials for furnishing both manmade and bird-built homes, you'l also be improving your own garden habitat and the pleasure you derive from it.
Nesting Box Basics
In the vernacular, they may be called birdhouses, but to the cognoscenti, they are nesting boxes. For birds that build their nest, lay eggs, and raise their young in a natural tree cavity, nesting boxes replicate these sheltered spaces. Some of the widely seen birds that utilize this type of shelter include the eastern bluebird, Carolina chickadee, American kestrel, purple martin, white-breasted nuthatch, owl, eastern phoebe, robin, house sparrow, barn swallow, tufted titmouse, and various wrens and woodpeckers.
In the best of all possible worlds, each of these birds have a nest box built specifically for them. The best source I've found for giving specific nest box dimensions and plans is Thomas G. Barnes' book, Gardening for Birds (University Press of Kentucky, 1999; $24.95). Another source of information, which I've just found out about and have not seen, is the 32-page A Guide to Bird Homes, by Scott Shalaway (Bird Watcher's Digest, 1995; $4.99)
Fortunately, a number of songbirds are not picky. A nest-box plan amenable for bluebirds, wrens, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, swallows, and flycatchers can be found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Web site at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/pdf/boxeabl.pdf. To adapt this nest box for individual species by changing the dimensions of the entrance hole, go to: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/pdf/songbird_holesize.pdf.
There is some controversy as to the best shape and size of the entrance hole for bluebirds, but the consensus seems to be a vertical oval hole 2-1/4 inches long and varying from 1-1/8 to 1-3/8 inches wide (depending upon which reference you follow). For more information about bluebirds, check out the Web site of the North American Bluebird Society at: http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org. For other birds as well as predator guards, the Cornell Lab has plans at: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse/resources/construct.
No matter what bird or birds you're hoping to encourage to settle down in your yard, a nesting box should include some basic features. In addition to the entrance hole being properly sized for the intended species, these include:
1. Untreated wood, never treated wood, which is toxic. Pine, cedar, or fir weather well.
2. Walls at least 3/4 inch thick to provide insulation
3. Sloped roof, ideally extending 5 inches beyond the front wall
4. Grooved or roughened interior walls
5. Recessed floor to prevent the nest from getting wet
6. Drainage and ventilation holes
7. Easy access for monitoring and cleaning, preferably a hinged side with a sturdy closing mechanism
8. Sturdy construction, with galvanized screws or nails
9. No outside perches, which aid predators
For More Information
As with most subjects, there is lots of information about bird watching on the Internet. Probably the best source is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://www.birds.cornell.edu). At this time of year, be sure to check out Birdhouse Network portion (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse), especially the Resources page. Other useful sites include:
Bird Houses: Choosing and Maintaining the Right Nest Boxes for the Right Birds: http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Bird_Houses.html
Nesting Boxes from the National Wildlife Federation: http://www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat/pdfs/NestingBoxes_TipSheet_Final.pdf
Archives and Useful Links (extensive!) pages from Cedar Works, especially Ten Ways to Help Nesting Birds, 10 Things To Do To Attract Hummingbirds, and Five Steps to a Bluebird-Friendly Yard: http://www.cedar-works.com
Provide Nesting Materials
So what house doesn't need furniture? Whether a bird nests in trees, bushes, the ground, or in a bird house, they need nesting materials. Different species of birds prefer different types of materials, but usually they use twigs, grass, feathers, and fur. Ideally, there are wilder, less tidy areas in your yard that naturally provide these nesting materials.
But why not give the birds in your area a helping hand by providing a stash of nesting materials? These can be placed on the ground, pushed into tree crevices, strung among the shrubs in your yard, proffered in a plastic berry basket, or attached to a straw or vine wreath. Another method is to use a wire suet feeder or a mesh onion bag with a few larger holes snipped in to give better access; hang in a tree or attach to a tree trunk, fence post, or deck railing.
Materials to consider include straw, small twigs, long dry grasses, sheet or Spanish mosses, yarn or string cut into 4- to 8-inch pieces, human or animal hair (especially horse hair), sheep's wool, bits of fur, cattail fluff, cottonwood down, kapok, cotton batting, moss, bark strips, pine needles, thin strips of cloth 1 inch wide and 6 inches long, and shredded paper. Spider webs are popular with hummingbirds, giving another excuse to avoid cleaning up outside. Robins, as well as swallows and phoebes, use mud for nests, so keep a muddy puddle in the yard for them.
One of my mother's favorite stories was about the little wren who added some snippets of organdy to its nest from a dress my mother was making for me when I was three or four years old. To this day, wrens make me smile and think of her. Watching and helping the birds creates lasting memories.
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