Attracting Nesting Birds with Better Birdhouses

Nesting birds are rewarding to watch. Get five key tips for attracting birds to nest in your garden.

There are few bird-watching experiences more rewarding than setting up a birdhouse and having a pair of birds select it as their home to raise young. Not all backyard birds use houses, including many popular species like cardinals, orioles and goldfinches. But enough common birds do nest in birdhouses to make it worthwhile to set up a few to see what happens.

About 30 bird species in each region of the country are so-called cavity nesters, which means that most of them will also use a birdhouse. Bluebirds, purple martins, house wrens, chickadees, tree swallows and house sparrows are the most common occupants. Attracting birds like wood ducks, screech-owls, woodpeckers, titmice and nuthatches may also be possible.

But setting up a successful birdhouse isn’t as simple as “build it and they will come.” There are several key factors to consider that will give you the best chance to attract nesting birds.

nesting birds

Once nesting birds find your birdhouse, there’s a good chance they’ll come back every year.Teri Shrigley

Select a Suitable Nesting Location
Each bird species has different habitat requirements, and this includes the environment they’ll choose for nesting. For example, the best location for a bluebird house is an area facing or surrounded by open fields, where the insects they eat and feed to their young are plentiful. Chickadees are just the opposite. They prefer houses in a thicket or a stand of small trees and shrubs. House wrens like their house to hang from a small tree in a more open yard. Purple martins select apartment houses placed on a tall pole in the middle of a lawn or open field. And tree swallows want to be close to water where they can find aquatic insects to eat and feed to their young.

Pick the Proper House Design
In addition to specific habitats, different bird species also require varied types of birdhouses. Purple martins like to live in communities of many birds of their species. Therefore, an apartment-style house or multiple nesting gourds work best. House wrens live in single, small houses, and prefer not to have other wrens close by. Bluebirds require single-room dwellings, typically 50 to 75 yards apart. No matter what type of birdhouse you use, wood is the best material. The houses also should have ventilation around the top and drainage holes in the floor, and be painted or stained an earth tone. The exception is martin houses, which often are made of aluminum (or dried gourds) and painted white to reflect heat.

Use a Birdhouse That Fits
Generally, small birds need small houses; large birds require large houses. House wrens are happy with an 8-inch-tall house with a 4- by 6-inch base, while a chickadee might select an 8-inch-tall house with a 5- by 5-inch base. Bluebirds need more room, so a box that’s 5-1/2 by 5-1/2 inches and 10 inches tall is perfect. Wood ducks and screech-owls need big houses, 10 by 10 inches and 24 inches high.

Check the Entrance Hole
A very important aspect of selecting the right house for the nesting birds you want to attract is the size of the entrance hole. House wrens require the smallest entrance, only 1-1/8 inches. This will also keep out competing nesters, since almost no other birds can fit through such a small opening. Wood ducks and screech-owls like an elliptical doorway that is 4 by 3 inches and about 20 inches above the floor of the house. The oval-shaped entrance helps prevent predators like raccoons from entering. Chickadees, tufted titmice and nuthatches are comfortable with a 1-1/4-inch hole, while bluebirds need about 1-1/2 inches to get inside.

Hang It at the Right Height
The final factor to consider is that nesting birds prefer their houses at different heights. Purple martin houses need to be about 15 to 20 feet above the ground. Wood ducks and screech-owls also need lofty homes, 12 to 40 feet high. For bluebirds, hang it 5 to 8 feet above the ground. House wrens prefer them 6 to 10 feet above the ground and hanging from a tree. Chickadees are most likely to nest in houses that are 4 to 8 feet above the floor of a thicket.

Even if you follow these five requirements, not every birdhouse will be successful in attracting birds. The best way to increase your odds is to offer multiple houses of several types. Then, chances are good you’ll have some winged tenants to admire come nesting season.

  1. Marlene Mouchette says

    My birdhouse filled with honeybees which I enjoy too but after several years the hive was large and full of honey so I had a beekeeper remove it. Any suggestions on keeping the bees out of the bird houses?

    • leeanne collins says

      Bees and wasps do not like mint. You can try dabbing some mint extract on the opening edges or on a few spots on the inner walls.

      This tip works on hummingbird and oriole feeders so it might resolve your honey bee issue.

      With honeybees being in danger because of issues killing honey bees, you might want to check with the beekeeper to see if he would like to put a hive in the back of your property for the bees.

  2. Rusty Brown in Canada says

    I had chickadees nesting in my back yard birdhouse for several years, then the wrens took over and nothing else would nest nearby. I have read that they drive out other species, and such was my experience. Not sure what to do to get the chickadees back.
    (We have had 6 species nest on our intown property: robin, starling, chickadee; wren; and mourning doves and blue jays in the same tree one summer.)

  3. Dianne Boarts says

    I live in the country and when I try and feed the nesting birds the starlings and black birds come in and eat all the food in a day and scare the other birds away, what can I do to keep them away?

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