Get Started with Birdhouses

Create safe and cozy spaces for birds to raise their families.

Hang a few birdhouses in your backyard and get ready for a rewarding adventure as you witness the awe-inspiring life cycle of birds.

When birds nest on your property and raise their young, it’s so gratifying. “It’s the ultimate standard of success,” said Robyn Bailey, project leader of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch program. “And it brings a greater diversity of birds to your backyard.” Here are a few tips to get you started.

Choose the Right Birdhouse

Tailor the house to the bird you want to attract. If you’re hoping for a nesting songbird, buy a standard nest box with a 11/2-inch entrance hole, commonly called a bluebird box. Birdhouses with a smaller hole, about an inch in diameter, are ideal for chickadees and wrens.

The needs of nesting owls are more specific, so use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Right Bird, Right House online interactive tool: nestwatch.org.

Also, make sure the box you choose isn’t painted on the inside, because the fumes may affect the birds. Natural wood boxes are ideal for birds and they age well, lasting about 10 to 15 years. Toss in a few wood chips to help certain birds that don’t build nests, including kestrels, ducks and owls. (Read more: 4 Simple Tips for Hosting an Owl in Your Backyard)

Tree swallows feeding dragonfly to young.photo credit: Joel Allen (B&B reader)
photo credit: Joel Allen (B&B reader) Different birds have different birdhouse needs. Tree swallows, for example, prefer nest boxes about 5 to 6 feet off the ground.

Prepare for Backyard Birds

If the house you buy doesn’t have hanging instructions attached, take a moment to look them up. Birdhouses should hang in the habitats the birds like most. For example, bluebirds prefer boxes in the open with a clear flight path, while wrens choose a home near woody vegetation. Try not to place the house too close to feeders.

Also, to ensure that the home is available to early nesters, put out your box by February if you live in the South, mid-March if you live up north. If you prefer, you can keep it up all year. (Read more: 9 Unique Birdhouses Birds Can Actually Use)

Watch for Bird Nests

“It’s a common misconception that you shouldn’t check on a bird or monitor its nest,” Robyn said. “Checking on your occupants is a good way to make sure things are going the way you’d hope.”

Moving as nonintrusively as possible, check your birdhouse once or twice a week, keeping visits to less than a minute. If you want to put your data to good use in studying birds, record what you see using the NestWatch website (nestwatch.org) or phone app.

How to Keep Birdhouses Clean

Each spring and fall, use a paint scraper to scoop nesting materials out of the birdhouse. If it’s heavily soiled, wear a mask and wash the house with soap and water. (Read more: When Should I Clean Out My Birdhouses?)