Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How To Build A Natural-Looking Birdhouse

For thousands of years, many species of birds have relied on tree cavities made by woodpecker in which to build their nests. Bluebirds, Wrens, Titmice, Chickadees and Swallows often competed for the same holes. Sometimes a single cavity could serve as a home to two or three different species in a single year. Different strategies, habitat preferences and timing have allowed for native species to co-exist despite constant skirmishes. Shortly after coming to North America, European settlers brought with them two species of birds that forever changed the delicate balance that existed. In the late 1800’s the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) and European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) arrived on our shores. These two species are more aggressive than many native birds and gained a decided advantage over other species, causing their numbers to swell.

All across the country, man-made birdhouses have become common in backyards, farms, golf courses and parks to provide much-needed housing to our native feathered friends. Building bird houses with holes no larger than 1½ inch keeps out Starlings and careful placement and monitoring discourages House Sparrows. I’ve watched over hundreds of these nest boxes in local refuges and never had a Starling or House Sparrow successfully nest in one of them. My single disappointment was that, in thirty years of trying, I not had any success with Bluebirds nesting in my own yard. Every year, I would faithfully provide clean boxes in good locations only to be met with disappointment. Bluebirds would show interest in the houses, but then leave when the Tree Swallows and House Wrens showed up. I tried all sorts of different strategies for placement, pairing and design of the boxes, but I simply seemed destined to fail.

My luck finally changed two years ago when I came up with a hair-brained idea that evolved from my needs as a wildlife photographer. Over the years, I have gotten a number of really nice photos of birds using bird houses. Tree Swallows and House Wrens regularly nest in my yard and have gotten used to me wandering around the yard with either a lawn mower or a camera. On the other hand, I had no shots of birds in natural cavities. The reason for this is a combination of the lack of birds actually using natural nest holes and not wanting to disturb birds while they are nesting. Still, I really wanted a few killer shots of birds using natural cavities.

The solution was so simple that even I was able to think of it. I decided to make my own custom bird houses for the photo-friendly birds that come to my yard every year. My first effort was to cut a piece of log to use as the front of a standard bird house. Immediately, an Eastern Bluebird dropped by to check out my invention, but the poor design of my hybrid was probably the reason he didn’t stay – either that or he was afraid of what his friends might say about the appearance of his freaky home. My second attempt involved the use of an old pine log. Hours of drilling, chiseling and swearing resulted in a rather disheveled home that looked to have some promise. Even as I was building the prototype a Titmouse went inside for a look. Unfortunately, I started with a rather old piece of log and it completely fell to pieces when I accidentally dropped it.

Breaking from character, I managed to learn from my mistakes. My third attempt involved a fresh log and a chainsaw. An hour later, I had what seemed like a usable man-made “natural cavity” mounted on a pole in my back yard. On the very first day, a male Bluebird stopped by to check it out and bicker a bit with the Tree Swallows that were trying to decide between two more traditional bird houses. The following day, the male Bluebird was joined by a female and a week later they began building a nest. I didn’t want to disturb my new tenants and avoided the area near the nest for a few weeks. I used a long lens to get some photos from across the yard. When the eggs hatched a few weeks later, the Bluebirds were comfortable enough with my presence to come within a few feet of where I would sit most afternoons to photograph the Hummingbirds that visit my feeders. By the time they got to work on a second brood, they would watch for me to fill their bird bath with water to help them cool off during the blistering summer heat. My extended family included the Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, two pairs of house Wrens and a couple of Hummingbirds. All of them hated my neighbor’s cat, so an uneasy peace was maintained for most of the summer.

To build such a house, select a piece of log 18 inches in length and 12 inches in diameter. Cut a slice approximately 2 inches thick off the top and bottom. These will be replaced after the center is hollowed out. Cut the remaining log in half lengthwise. CAREFULLY hollow out the main body of the log with the chainsaw. PLEASE - IF YOU ARE NOT EXPERIENCED WITH A CHAIN SAW - DON'T TRY THIS YOURSELF!!! Assemble the box by attaching the top and bottom slices to the two carved out sections using 4 inch wood screws. Drill a 1½ inch entrance hole in one side of the box. Attach a 3/4 inch pipe flange on the bottom of the box. Screw a 9 inch length of ¾ inch pipe into the flange. Drive a 5 foot length of rebar one foot into the ground and position the box on top by sliding the pipe over the rebar.

Materials Needed:
Log (preferably pine) 18 inches in length and 12 inches in diameter
Rebar – ½ inch by 5 feet
Flange – ¾ inch
Pipe – ¾ inch by 9 inches
Screws – 4 inch (total of 6) and 2 inch (total of 4)

Tools Needed:
1 ½ inch drill bit

This makes a great set-up for photography as the box can be turned to catch the best light.

If attracting Bluebirds is your goal, place nest boxes out in the fall and leave them out all winter. When I tried this, I found that the Bluebirds made almost daily inspections of the boxes and would occasionally spend the night in them when the weather turned bad. As the nesting season drew closer, the activity picked up.      

You can see thousands of my photos at  They are all available for sale as prints or licence. I have a section where you can find birds by species or hard-to-find vertical shots for your next magazine cover


  1. I really, REALLY need to give this a shot. You make it sound so easy..

  2. The above box only took about an hour to make. Just go slowly and be very careful. Neatness doesn't count, but safety does!

  3. Good luck with the new blog Steve!

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