Bird Baths and Bird Houses

We have posted a series of articles about attracting birds to your backyard, beginning with choices on bird feeders, choices on bird food, and landscaping to provide food and shelter for your birds. These are a few of the essentials for those of us just starting out in bird watching, and those of us a little further along the path to becoming a “birder.” Today we will explore bird baths and nesting boxes, with a final note about roosting boxes.

Bird Baths

Probably the most important addition you can make to your garden for the health of birds is to add a bird bath. They drink the water and wash themselves in a bath. You might even be able to attract birds that are not in any way attracted to the food you put out or grow, but just need water. And the choice of style and material are as broad as your imagination. A bird bath can be elaborate and expensive or something as simple as an old fry pan or shallow bowl set on the ground.

If you notice birds in the woods, they come to shallow water, even puddles to drink and bathe. So for attractive water sources, birds will be attracted to a ground level bath much easier than one on a pedestal.

Gound level birdbath
Ground level birdbath

Small birds will appreciate very shallow baths, even as shallow as 1 inch in depth, so if your bath is more than this and you want to attract small birds, just put some flagstone or pebbles in the water to raise the depth to an inch at least in part of your bath. And put some more stones that rise above the level of the water for the birds to perch upon and drink from.

If you are going to put out a ground level bath, make sure you have the bath situated in an open location so birds will be able to see and avoid any cat or other predator waiting for them on the ground. Put the bath in the shade (under a tree). You can buy an electric warmer to keep your bird bath ice free (although this isn’t actually necessary) in the winter sub-zero temperatures. Never put any chemical in the water, such as antifreeze or glycerin to keep the water from freezing!

Our ground level birdbath
Our ground level birdbath

But the most important thing to do with a bird bath is to keep it clean, hosing it out every other day or so, and scrubbing it every other week. Drop barley donuts into the water to keep mosquito eggs from hatching as added insurance to keep west-nile mosquitos from your yard, and there you have it!


Bird Houses and Nest Boxes

A nest box is just a bird house. Not all birds will use a bird house to lay their eggs and raise their young. Many birds build their own special nests, and some nest in other species’ former homes, and some just lay their eggs in a shallow depression, with no visible nest at all.

If you are going to put out a bird house and live in the south, do so by at least February. If you live in other parts of the country, put out your house by mid to late March. It will take a while for birds to discover your house and they nest in the spring and summer. Different locations and heights and hole sizes attract different birds. For example, owl houses need to be mounted 10 to 15 feet above ground

level. Bluebird houses need to point to any open field so the bluebirds can see and defend their territories.

Bluebird wooden nest box
Bluebird wooden nest box

If you mount your bird house to a pole, add a predator guard on the pole to keep racoons and snakes from climbing the pole.

Keep the house clean, and clean it out after each hatching so that the house can be used again, since some species lay a second set of eggs in the same season in the same house, if has been cleaned out.

Although natural wood houses are popular, I find them chewed to pieces in just a season or two, and needing replacement. I use resin houses that we have maintained for more than 10 years, and even they show some signs of being gnawed after such a long time.

Our resin birdhouses
Our resin birdhouses

But they are always occupied, most often with cardinals and blue jays every year. Our larger birdhouses can house two families at the same time, and there are several species that mingle, most especially bluebirds and tree swallows; although birds of the same species are usually territorial enough not to share a house (such as two bluebird families in the same house.)

You can put out nesting materials for the birds to use in building their houses. Some are attracted to shiny materials, such as aluminum foil and plastic; others to fabric strips, hair, fur, and wool. Still others build nests from mud, so you might want to maintain a damp spot for them. Some birds just use twigs and leaves off the ground. Just don’t put out something that might have had a chemical in it no matter how diluted — for example, don’t use dryer lint.

You can also grow gourds to use as birdhouses. Purple martins are the species fond of gourds for their birdhouses, but remember than gourds require a long growing season, and once you have the gourds, they must be mounted at least two stories high to provide the martins a predator proof flyway to them.

Roosting Boxes

Finally, we thought it might be helpful to point out that some birds don’t migrate in the winter and prefer to roost together to maintain their body heat. So birds often look to their now clean bird houses to roost at night. This isn’t ideal because there is no roosting perches in birdhouses for them and the bird house is draftier than ideal for roosting. Consider adding one or more roosting boxes to your landscape for year-round comfort, but especially in the winter. Face it south where winter sun can warm it.

Roosting Box for Your Birdies
Roosting Box for Your Birdies

If you can paint it, paint it a dark color (outside only) to absorb the sun’s heat.  Mount it 15 feet or more in the air and add a predator guard on the pole (as suggested for a bird house earlier). Buy or make the box opening no more than 1 1/2 inches diameter (the one pictured above would need modification) so that starlings can’t take over (too small an opening for them). Put down cedar chips for added warmth on the bottom, and tape any gaps and cracks to keep it even warmer in the winter. Like with bird houses, keep it clean and clean it out at least seasonally (early December; early March; early June; and early September, for examples.)

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