Brightly colored, upcycled birdhouses are among the most charming forms of garden art. But if you want a birdhouse that’s actually for the birds, you need to consider a lot more than human aesthetics in your design. Birds will only use nesting boxes that mimic the ones they build or find in nature. They usually have specific requirements about size, shape, and placement of entry. No matter how cute they are, most of the birdhouses sold at the craft fair don’t even look like houses to the birds.
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It’s obvious once you think about it, but different kinds of birds have different nesting needs, so it helps to know which bird you are building a house for. Many Audubon Society chapters provide building designs for bird species that are local to their area and likely to appreciate a well-designed birdhouse. (Not all birds can be convinced to take up residence in an artificial nest.) The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch program has a handy interactive guide to help you determine the right nest box for bird species in your area, as well as downloadable plans for making them. The Audubon Birdhouse Book presents detailed, biologically appropriate designs for more than 20 North American bird species.
Location, Location, Location
It’s the most important element of human real estate, and it matters to birds, too. No matter how perfectly built your birdhouse is, if your yard doesn’t provide species-appropriate habitat, the birdhouse will remain empty.
For most birds, a good neighborhood means having a source of water and food — but not too close to bird feeders, which could result in crowding and competition. A house mounted on a metal pole with metal cone guards might not be as attractive as one nailed to a tree, but the chicks inside it are much safer from predators. Even the orientation of the house can make a difference — bluebirds always prefer east-facing houses, but if you live in a hot climate, orienting a birdhouse to the south could make it unlivable for any species.
Like people, different birds look for different things in a home. Cavity-nesting birds seek out nests with ideal dimensions, which are specific to each species. Porches and doors make a big difference in a home’s curb appeal. The proper size and placement for the opening hole in a birdhouse is critical to birds. But those cute little perches by the door of traditional bird houses are more helpful to predators than to the birds, so leave them off of any birdhouse.
Another universal? No matter how protective the roof, some rainwater is bound to get into any birdhouse; include drainage holes to keep chicks dry. If you include a removable roof or back panel, you can clean out the bird house in-between tenants. Most birds won’t set up house in a dirty box.
With a little bit of research, it’s easy to buy or build a birdhouse that is really for the birds.
Feature image courtesy of Peter Heeling, Skitterphotos. Originally published on October 4, 2018, this article was updated in February 2023.