Spring is just around the corner and with it the earth will unfold with budding trees, moist ground bearing tender new shoots and the return of migrating songbirds.
Among those feathered friends will be the species known as the eastern bluebird, the male with his brilliant blue hue and one of the prettiest birds in North America.
The male bluebird will leave its wintering grounds a week or two before the female. Their quest is to find an adequate spot for the female to nest, which generally will occur in April or early May. Some pairs of bluebirds will have up to three broods a year if proper nesting is located.
At one time the bluebirds would seek out nesting spots in cavities of trees, old wood pecker holes or in a crevice in a fence post. However, over time many of these locations had become increasingly scarce and the birds were in competition with other animal species for nesting places. That caused the population of the eastern bluebird to spiral downward.
Then, naturalists, bird lovers and sportsmen alike came to the aid of the bluebirds. They began to build and erect bluebird nesting boxes. Bluebird aficionados like Joe Kujanik of Gary, Gene Clifford and Ken Jankowski of Valparaiso even went as far as making bluebird trails, selecting a site, construction and putting out numerous houses that they vigilantly monitored and maintained. Their time and efforts paid off with a rebound of the bluebird population.
Anyone can get in on the act of having bluebirds. You could be creative and build your own birdhouse or buy one at a store. House plans are readily available from numerous sources.
Over the years I've built several styles of bluebird houses out of scrap wood and found that the bluebirds preferred their housing to have three accommodations: the entrance hole to the bluebird house should be drilled to a one and one-half inch size, equip the top of the house with an easy and accessible lid for removing nests and debris from other birds and make sure to place the birdhouse in a location to the bluebird's liking.
The North America Bluebird Society recommends building a nesting box that has a square bottom of four inches by four inches. The back of the standard box is ten and one-half inches long and six and one-half inches wide.
The front of the box should be six and one-half inches wide by nine and one-half inches long. The roof should be sloped. The entrance hole should be one and one-eighth inch below the top of the front entrance board.
The placement of a bluebird nesting box is crucial for success. Areas that are heavily wooded are more likely to attract house wrens. While some bluebirds will nest in a box in a backyard that is surrounded by trees, the optimal spot should be one that is fairly open with trees scattered and ground cover minimal.
If possible, bluebird boxes should be mounted on metal pipes to deter critters such as raccoons or weasels. The box should be a minimal of five feet off of the ground.
Once the nesting begins you may find it helpful to monitor the bluebird box daily to remove sparrows or other birds' nesting attempts. Just open the lid and scoop out any nesting material.
Hopefully when the female bluebird chooses one of your nesting boxes, the other birds will have gotten the message. Watching the birds travel back and forth to the box with grasses and twigs in their beaks for nest building is your reward.
Once the nest is complete the female will lay three to seven eggs which will incubate in 13 to 16 days. During the nesting period the male bluebird can often be seen perched atop the nesting box.
Once the eggs are hatched the male can also be noted bringing bugs and insects to the entrance of the box to help feed the young. After two to three weeks the young will then leave the nest to begin living on their own.
Many bluebird watchers report multiple nests in the same box each year.
Last year we had one bluebird house that was used to raise three broods of bluebirds. Therefore, we maintain a keen vigil on the boxes through August.
I was very fortunate to receive a gift of two cedar bluebird houses this year. Birdhouses constructed of cedar are naturally insect repellent which could help thwart some of the problems associated with pests in the houses including ants, bees and other parasites. Happy birding.
Link from another group with some more info on birdhouses:
Free Feeder and Birdhouse Plans Index
Cardinals, doves, orioles, and other determinedly wild birds won't nest in your boxes, no matter what you do. You can still help them by considering their food and shelter requirements in your landscape plans. You can also hang out a wire cage full of nesting materials (fiber scraps, twigs, twine already cut to the right length, wool, or feathers) in the spring. Those that visit your feeders and baths may stay and nest in nearby trees if you make them feel welcome.
More than two dozen North American birds will nest in bird houses if you place the right kind of house in the right environment for them. The following descriptions will help you determine which birds might visit your neighborhood and become your guests.
If you put up a bluebird house near an old field, orchard, park, cemetery, or golf course, you'll have a good chance of attracting a pair of bluebirds. They prefer nest boxes on a tree stump or wooden fence post between three and five feet high. Bluebirds also nest in abandoned woodpecker nest holes. The most important measurement is the hole diameter. An inch and a half is small enough to deter starlings. Starlings and house sparrows have been known to kill baby bluebirds as well as adults sitting on the nest.
Bluebirds have problems with other animals too. The easiest way to discourage predatory cats, snakes, raccoons, and chipmunks is to mount the house on a metal pole, or use a metal predator guard on a wood post.
Robins are our largest thrushes. They prefer to build their nest in the crotch of a tree. If you don't have an appropriate tree, you can offer a nesting platform. Pick a spot six feet or higher up on a shaded tree trunk or under the overhang of a shed or porch. Creating a "mud puddle" nearby offers further excitement, as robins use mud to line their nests.
Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Titmice
Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches share the same food, feeders, and habitats. If you put a properly designed nest box in a wooded yard, at least one pair is sure to check it out.
Put chickadee houses at eye level. Hang them from limbs or secure them to tree trunks. The entrance hole should be 1-1/8" to attract chickadees yet exclude house sparrows.
Anchor houses for hatches on tree trunks five to six feet off the ground.
You can encourage these birds to stay in your yard by continuing to fill your suet and peanut feeders through the summer.
Brown Creepers and Prothonotary Warblers
Look for brown creepers to nest behind the curved bark of tree trunks. In heavily wooded yards, slab bark houses will appeal to creepers. Prothonotary warblers also prefer slab bark houses, but theirs must be placed over water.
Wrens don't seem to be very picky about where they nest. Try nest boxes with a 1" x 2" horizontal slot (1-1/2" x 2-1/2" for the larger Carolina wrens) instead of a circle. These are easier for the wrens to use.
Wrens are notorious for filling up any conceivable nest cavity with twigs, regardless of whether they use the nest. Since male house wrens build several nests for the female to choose from, hang several nest boxes at eye level on partly sunlit tree limbs. Wrens are sociable and will accept nest boxes quite close to your house.
Tree and Violet-green Swallows
Tree swallows prefer nest boxes attached to dead trees. Space the boxes about seven feet apart for these white-bellied birds with iridescent blue-green backs and wings. The ideal setting for these insect-eaters is on the edge of a field near a lake, pond, or river.
Violet-green swallows nest in forested mountains of the west; boxes placed on large trees in a semi-open woodland will attract them.
Barn Swallows and Phoebes
If you have the right habitat, barn swallows and phoebes are easy to attract. It's their nesting behavior, not their plumage or song, that catches your attention. These birds tend to nest where you'd rather not have them: on a ledge right over your front door. To avoid a mess by your door, offer the birds a nesting shelf nearby where you'd rather have them.
Many people want martins because, it's been said, these birds "can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day." While it's true that they eat flying insects, don't expect purple martins to wipe out your mosquitoes. Martins actually prefer dragonflies, insects which prey on mosquito larvae.
Mosquitoes are most active after sunset. If you want to rid your yard of mosquitoes, put up a bat roosting box. One bat can eat thousands of mosquitoes a night.
But don't cross martins off your prospective tenant list because they don't live up to their "bug zapping" reputation. If you need a reason for attracting them, these gregarious swallows put on a show that's better than any television soap opera.
You have the best chance of attracting martins if you put a house on the edge of a pond or river, surrounded by a field or lawn. Martins need a radius of about 40 feet of unobstructed flying space around their houses. A convenient wire nearby gives them a place to perch in sociable groups.
Martins nest in groups, so you'll need a house with a minimum of four large rooms -- 6 or more inches on all sides, with a 2-1/2 inch entrance hole about an inch and a half above the floor.
Ventilation and drainage are critical factors in martin house design. Porches, railings, porch dividers and supplemental roof perches, like a TV antenna, will make any house more appealing.
Gourds may also be made into houses by making an entrance hole and providing drainage. If you use gourds, it's not necessary to add railings and perches. Adult martins will perch on the wire used to hang the houses.
Before you decide on a house, take the time to think about what kind of pole you're going to put it on. Martins will occupy a house that's between ten and twenty feet off the ground. Some poles are less cumbersome than others.
Gourd houses are the easiest to set up. You can string them:
* from a wire between two poles
* from a sectional aluminum pole
* on pulleys mounted to cross-bar high up on a pole.
Light-weight aluminum houses can be mounted on telescoping poles, providing easy access for maintenance and inspection. Because of their weight (well over 30 pounds), wood houses cannot be mounted on easy-access telescoping poles. You'll have to use a sturdy metal or wood pole attached to a pivot post. The problem with this "lowering" technique is that you can't tilt the house without damaging the nests inside. If you put your house on a shorter, fixed pole, ten to twelve feet high, you can use a ladder to inspect and maintain it.
The great crested flycatcher and its western cousin, the ash-throated flycatcher, are common in wooded suburbs. Their natural nesting sites are abandoned woodpecker holes.
These flycatchers may nest in a bird house if it's placed about ten feet up in a tree in an orchard or at the edge of a field or stream.
You can attract all the woodpeckers with a suet feeder, but only the flicker and the red-bellied are likely to use a bird house. They prefer a box with roughened interior and a floor covered with a two-inch layer of wood chips or coarse sawdust. Flickers are especially attracted to nest boxes filled with sawdust, which they "excavate" to suit themselves.
For best results, place the box high up on a tree trunk exposed to direct sunlight.
Most owls seldom build their own nests. Great horned and long-eared owls prefer abandoned crow and hawk nests. Other owls (barred, barn, saw-whet, boreal and screech) nest in tree cavities and bird houses.
Barn owls are best known for selecting nesting sites near farms. Where trees are sparse, these birds will nest in church steeples, silos, and barns. If you live near a farm or a golf course, try fastening a nest box about 15 feet up on a tree trunk.
Screech owls prefer abandoned woodpecker holes at the edge of a field or neglected orchard. They will readily take to a boxes lined with an inch or two of wood shavings. If you clean the box out in late spring after the young owls have fledged, you may attract a second tenant--a kestrel. Trees isolated from larger tracts of woods have less chance of squirrels taking over the box.
Birdhouses require monitoring on a weekly basis after being set-up. There are bound to be problems with parasites or losses due to predators. This is why it is very important to choose a birdhouse that would allow regular monitoring and cleaning.
There are two bird species that should be given particular attention to when found in the prepared birdhouses. These are the European Starling and the House Sparrows which are very aggressive species introduced in the American landscape in the 1800ís. Their presence can be very exasperating for those seeking to attract native species to birdhouses. They have managed to spread to practically every corner of the country and have out-competed native birds for food and nesting cavities. They evict and kill native species and build their nest on top of the previous nest.