Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Bird Houses Can Attract a Variety of Species
March 17, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     Last week, I talked mainly about putting up bird houses for bluebirds and tree swallows, but there are a host of other birds that will appreciate a man-made nesting box. Any bird that nests in a tree cavity might accept a bird house. These include the woodpeckers (downy, hairy, red-bellied and flickers), as well as chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch, Carolina and house wrens and house finch. Of course house sparrows and starlings will take over many a bird house. Purple martins nest in colonies and will take to multiple cavity houses and gourds. Also a few other special birds such as great crested flycatcher, kestrels, screech and barred owls, wood ducks and hooded mergansers will occupy larger nest boxes.

     Our spring robins are arriving and though they normally build a nest in trees, they sometimes nest under decks (on cross beams) and on top of light fixtures on a house. They will sometimes nest on a nesting shelf, which had an open side for easy access in and out. Eastern phoebes, which are also starting to return to our area, also will take to a nesting shelf as they often nest under eaves of a shed or garage. Phoebes are early nesters as well, and once they nest, they often return to the same place and will build a new nest right on top of the old one.

     There have been reports of Carolina wrens starting to nest already and they will nest in many different odd places. They have been known to nest in mail boxes, in hanging plants, in clothes pin bags, in flower pots in garages, and under upside down kayaks and canoes that have been stored for the winter. They will also nest in a bird house. House finches also commonly nest in hanging plants, but they, too, can be coaxed to a bird house.

     Cousin to the Carolina wren, the smaller house wren, will arrive in May and the males will begin filling houses with sticks only to let the female chose which house she prefers. They will take readily to a hanging house, and their entrance hole need only be about an inch in diameter. Such a small size hole will exclude most other birds, but it doesn’t stop the house wren from taking over houses with larger entrances that were meant for bluebirds or chickadees. House wrens can be aggressive in their own right by tapping holes into the eggs that other birds leave in a bird house.

     Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches will fit in a house with a 1 1/8-1 1/4” hole, but they, too, might occupy a larger entrance house meant for a bluebird or tree swallow. The smaller downy woodpecker can also use that size house. The hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers need a larger house with a larger entrance hole (which a downy woodpecker might also occupy) and the flicker needs larger accommodations still.

     Purple martins are at the northeastern edge of their range and are mostly coastal in our area. They colony houses are large, need to be put up twelve to fifteen feet high in open areas, and require much more maintenance than most bird houses. House sparrows and starling are a constant threat, so accessibility to the house is important to be able to control these pest birds from taking over. So a ladder is necessary or a means to lower and raise the house is required to check on the nests and to remove the unwanted intruders. Tree swallow houses are much easier to deal with. They only need to be five to six feet high and you can put multiple houses in close proximity to attract more swallows. Since they are of the same family as purple martins, they too will eat large numbers of flying insects.

     The declining kestrel population in our area is a good reason to put up a kestrel box if you have the right open habitat for one. Screech owls use the same size box so they, too, might nest on your property. I know of a Rowley home and one in Boxford that have each had a red morph and a gray morph screech owl occupying separate owl boxes in their yards. A red morph owl is presently occupying a box right in urban Newburyport. If you have a pond or other wetland, wood ducks will also use a nest box designed for them.

     Depending on the habitat you have, there are many opportunities for attracting birds with bird houses. In return, these birds may entertain you with song and may help control the insects in your yard or garden.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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