Time to put up birdhouses for our feathered friends

There is just something peaceful about having birds around homes and gardens. Whether it’s the joyful songs they sing in the spring or the delight received from admiring their bright colors, sizes and gifts of flight, it’s just nice having feathered friends around.

An added bonus is having birds nest there and raise their young nearby in the spring and summer. Those are the most wonderful kinds of neighbors.    

Attracting birds to hang around a property means providing their basic needs – food, water and shelter. Putting up nesting boxes is also a must. Not all birds will build nests in birdhouses, but there are several species that will raise their offspring in manmade houses. The most common ones are bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, wrens and purple martins.

Late winter is the ideal time to construct and place new birdhouses before spring arrives. Between late February and early March, the birds mentioned above will go house hunting, but they won’t need a realtor. The male bird will usually start the search and visit several birdhouses. He then brings the female with him to see if she likes the place he picked out (just like in real life). Once they agree and select a spot or birdhouse, they begin hanging around it or claiming the territory. 

Eastern bluebirds, one of Alabama’s year-round residents, have declined in population recently due to the lack of natural nesting cavities. This is caused by the changing habitats and competition from the introduction of starlings and house sparrows.

Thanks mostly to people constructing and putting up nest boxes, these birds have recovered and are improving their numbers. Bluebirds are one of the most common to nest in birdhouses.

A birdhouse for a bluebird should have a floor dimension of 4 inches by 4 inches; be 8 inches by 12 inches tall; and have an entrance hole of 1-1/2 inches in diameter that is 6 to 10 inches above the floor. Place the birdhouse 5 feet off the ground on a pole or post in an open area rather than on and under the canopy of a large tree.

Bluebirds usually nest along woodland edges of open fields or other open areas. They are often seen sitting on power lines or singing atop trees along pastures, lawns and golf courses. Birdhouses on the edges of these open areas are ideal because there is typically a solid supply of insects and berries.

These birdhouses should be placed at least 100 yards apart, since bluebirds are very territorial. If not, the dominant pair of bluebirds in the area will also claim the second birdhouse, and, although they won’t occupy it, they will run off others.

Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice are common backyard bird feeder visitors but will also use manmade birdhouses, including those designated for bluebirds. They live in woodland habitats and usually in close association with human beings. In the wild, chickadees and titmice will nest in decayed stumps, abandoned nest cavities and nest holes they have excavated.

Birdhouses for chickadees and titmice should have a floor dimension of 4 inches by 4 inches; be 8 to 10 inches tall; and have an entrance hole of 1-1/4 inches in diameter that is 6 to 8 inches above the floor.

Nest boxes for chickadees should be placed 6 to 15 feet above ground near several large trees with protective shading. For titmice, nest boxes should be placed 4 to 10 feet above ground on posts or trees located along woodland edges.

Carolina wrens love thickets and brush piles bordering open areas. They will often nest in yards near these brush piles. Notorious for their curiosity, Carolina wrens will build nests in almost any available cavity, including hanging potted plants, open cardboard boxes in outdoor buildings and the pockets of clothing left on the clothesline. Wren birdhouses are constructed using the same dimensions for chickadees and titmice, but wrens prefer birdhouses placed 6 to 10 feet above ground on poles in open areas offering cover and protection.

Although not generally considered a songbird species, purple martins are easy to attract and a favorite yard species in the Southeast. These birds are noted for their tremendous appetites for mosquitoes and are well appreciated in most communities. Purple martins send out male scouts in mid-February to March to search out potential nest sites, and the remaining colony members arrive later. Nest boxes must be erected before the scouts arrive to attract purple martins for a particular season.

Purple martins inhabit open woodlands and field edges, usually near lakes or ponds where they feed on insects. Preferred nesting sites are woodpecker holes, natural tree cavities, caves and manmade martin condominiums and gourd houses.

Place purple martin houses on poles in fairly open areas 15 to 20 feet above ground, with an entrance hole of 2-1/2 inches in diameter. These houses should be taken down and cleaned at the end of the nesting season; and then, put back in early February before the scouts arrive. Martin houses should be painted white to help reflect light.

Almost any grade of untreated lumber could be used to build nest boxes; treated lumber is not recommended. The most durable woods include cypress, cedar and redwood. Pine, although less durable, is easier to work with and is less expensive. Lumber should be at least a 3/4-inch thick to provide insulation for the birds. Painting is not necessary, except for purple martin houses or others made of soft wood.

As spring and warmer weather approaches, birds will begin building nests and laying eggs, possibly as early as late March. More than likely, they will nest in the chosen areas or birdhouses for the entire year – usually having two or three broods or sets of babies per year.

Although it is rewarding to watch the baby birds leave the birdhouse, seeing the same pair of birds return to the same birdhouse year after year may be just as special.

Get those birdhouses constructed; and then, be on the lookout for them house hunting and nest building. Having our feathered friends move in is a great event and a sign that spring is just around the corner.

For more information on songbirds and birdhouse plans, contact the local county Extension Office or visit aces.edu.

~ Shane Harris is the Tallapoosa County Extension Coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension.