Bird Shelters to Attract Flocks of Friends |

Bird Shelters to Attract Flocks of Friends

Adrian Higgins
The Washington Post
Some birdhouses, including this one from the National Audubon Society, are ornithologically correct and ecologically savvy. Handout/ The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – You could argue that a birdhouse lends so much charm and even color to a garden that it doesn’t need feathered tenants to make us happy.

But how much more satisfying it is to have songbirds around, and to see them flitting back and forth in May with insects for their young, knowing that you lent a hand.

If you wait another month before putting up a birdhouse, however, you may be missing the boat for the year. Late February is the period for buying or making and installing birdhouses, or cleaning and fixing existing ones. Spring may seem still far off, but nesting birds are beginning their search for a place to raise the spring brood.

The chickadee, surely one of the friendliest and most cheerful of all birds, starts looking in earnest for digs in late February, early March, said Craig Tufts, chief naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation.

Birdhouses draw the types of birds that would normally find quarters in tree cavities, about a dozen species around the Washington area, said Tufts. For urban gardeners, common inhabitants include chickadees, wrens, titmice and, a little rarer, brown-headed nuthatches. If your lot backs up to a park or woodland, you might attract a great crested flycatcher. In the vicinity of a low-lying woodland, your guests might include a prothonotary warbler.

In the east, close to old fields or orchards, the exquisite eastern bluebird, with its red breast, is likely to inhabit purpose-built houses on posts. This bird, once waning, has made a stunning comeback in the past couple of decades, no doubt with the aid of the network of boxes that have been built and maintained by rural nature lovers.

The same boxes in open settings can even lure the tree swallow, “which is gorgeous, pure white underneath and metallic dark blue above,” he said.

The wren that spends the winter here, ruddy brown and with a distinct eye stripe, is the Carolina wren, which is quick to nest and roost in cans and pots and shelving but is harder to get to live in a birdhouse, Tufts said. It is another wren that likes to nest in a box, the house wren, which is migratory and doesn’t arrive until early April, he said, though as winters have become milder, the whole nesting season has become earlier.

Various birdhouse options are available, from the ecologically savvy and ornithologically correct cedar boxes branded by the National Audubon Society to the more wacky and singular houses made by the Recycled Birdhouse Co. in Rome, Maine.

The Audubon boxes are made under license by WoodLink Ltd. of Mount Ayr, Iowa, and are available at bird supply stores and various hardware stores and independent garden centers, WoodLink president David Nylen said.

The Recycled Birdhouse Co. was founded by Mark Pelletier and Curtis Brown as a workshop for disabled adults. The birdhouses have a lot of character, not least their roofs fashioned from shingles of pine cone scales. Many are sold as folk art and used as decorative elements in porches or hung from exposed beams. All can go outside, some attract birds, others don’t, Pelletier said. “Birding is a funny science.”

Some people delight in buying old and antique birdhouses, which can be used outdoors for their intended purpose, as long as they are weatherproofed and free of lead paint, which isn’t good for birds, or humans for that matter.

Gardeners I know who place a lot of stock in bright colors have discovered a manufacturer named the Garden Path, in Portsmouth, N.H. Founded by Doug Ostrander and his wife, Anne Rugg, the company is known for its Gothic-inspired houses in gaudy but strangely harmonious shades of green, yellow, blue and turquoise, to name a few. The post-mounted versions, especially, create interesting vertical accents in the landscape. The styles are pricey (the 7-foot-6-inch Sugarloaf retails for $395) and have spawned foreign knockoffs, Ostrander said. His are made from a variety of materials, including cedar, laminated turned pine and poplar. “People love them; we sell consistently,” he said.

Weekend carpenters, of course, can make their own birdhouses from plans available on the Internet. One source is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (

If you follow at least some of the rules of design and placement (see accompanying tips), and put up enough boxes by mid-March, you are likely to get some tenants.

In their townhouse yard in Annapolis, Kris and Harold Woody have installed more than two dozen houses, eight attached to a small greenhouse. “There’s probably 30 out there,” Kris Woody said. “They’re really everywhere.” The yard is full of bird life, she said. “We spend a lot of time gardening and outdoors, and the birds have gotten very comfortable with us.” One important feature: no cat.

On the outskirts of Annapolis, Woody’s friend Annetta Kushner also counts about 30 houses, many occupied. “I live near the river, so we get a lot of bird activity,” she said.

With so many charming and stylish birdhouses out there, are we installing them for our benefit, or the birds’? Tufts said the birds need these sanctuaries, especially as we keep our yards increasingly free of organic clutter. “We have a tendency to worry about dead and dying trees, and have them taken down,” he said.