ALL PHOTOS BY LINDA VALDEZ, VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENER
A row of bright and whimsical ornamental bird houses are positioned on a stand in the birding area of VEG next to a life-size bird house used for student educational programs.
BIRDHOUSES IN THE GARDEN

February 21, 2008

By Linda Duarte Valdez,
Victoria County Master Gardener and Master Naturalist
Edited by Charla Borchers Leon
When I was first asked to write an article on birdhouses, my gut reaction was “But they don’t work!” I had to sit back and cognitively wonder why I was having this reaction.
 
Before I answer that question, let me tell you a little bit about the birds in our area. Most places have birds that are permanent residents, meaning that they stay in the area year round.  A lot of birds will pass through an area during migration and not give a second thought to nesting there.  They are on their way to their nesting grounds. These birds will eventually make the round trip back to areas south of the United States, although there are always exceptions to the rule.  For the most part a lot of our permanent residents nest in natural cavities or build a nest of twigs in trees and shrubs or on telephone cross beams.
 
So, do birdhouses work?  Yes, they do.  However, I have a hard time justifying them for my yard because I do get birds in them, but just not always desirable ones.  Undesirables are birds like house sparrow and European starlings. Both of these species are not native to America and are proliferate in their breeding habits. If you put up birdhouses, the first birds you are likely to get are house sparrows or European starlings that jam pack the birdhouse with old tissues, pieces of newspaper and string and grasses.  European starlings look like small black birds whereas bluebirds and other passerines (largest order of perching birds) use mostly natural material like twigs and grasses in their houses.

Birdhouses can be very decorative, whimsical and add a lot to either a patio area or in a flowerbed.  They come in many sizes and shapes to fit every need. Many are purely decorative and do not meet the needs of any birds but are great accent pieces in the home or yard. In the birding area at Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG), there is a
row of ornamental birdhouses on a stand.  They are cute, and colorful.  However, I am not aware of any birds having nested in them. 

Station birdhouses away from bird feeders to avoid predators that utilize feeding stations as easy targets for their own meals.
There are houses and gourds for purple martins, bluebird boxes, wood duck boxes and owl boxes.  These birds will utilize these boxes in the absence of natural cavities.  And why would there be an absence of natural cavities?  Well most of the time, we humans remove old tree limbs with holes or natural cavities from our trees as some of us think they are unsightly.  Also, competition runs high when you remember that possums, raccoons, and other birds of prey as well as starlings will also compete for these natural cavities.  Woodpeckers peck out many holes only to defend them from starlings.

Purple martin birdhouses come in different shapes and sizes.  At VEG, we only have a small 2 tier 8-hole house. I’ve seen gourds also used by people around Victoria.  Gourds are great because they discourage the invasion of undesirable birds by their free-range movement from a pole which house sparrow and European starlings do not like.
Purple Martin birdhouses come in various sizes and shapes. This small 2 tier, 8-hole house at Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) has visitors that likely nested there previously.
In this area the purple martin male scout, which is the first to arrive, usually is seen around January 23rd. (This is through personal experience and the dates can vary slightly.)  Generally they return to the same area where they nested in the previous years. Later the females will return to be courted and nest.

Having a purple martin house surrounded by trees decreases the probability that you will get purple martins in your yard.  They like open, wide spaces to fly into and land in their houses.  We have huge, old trees in our yard and have failed for many years to get them to come to the back yard.  I tried to persuade my husband to move the complex to the front yard.  He would have nothing to do with that, claiming it would look inappropriate in the front yard.  I guess he has a point there.

Eastern bluebirds will utilize birdhouses.  But the specifications for their nesting box are very specific.   If you have them around, then I’m sure that you live in an area where they can fly into the house from open spaces.  There are many bluebird trails that are monitored by dedicated volunteers.

Wood ducks are generally associated with wooded areas near water.  These ducks usually nest in natural cavities but have a great deal of competition for these natural openings.   They prefer openings that are 3”X4”.  This duck is easily spooked and will generally hang out in isolated waterways.  So be sure to situate your nesting box in the appropriate location.
 
Barn owls are great to have for rodent control.  They prefer a 6” opening for their nesting/ roosting box.  Of course they will also nest in barns and abandon buildings.

Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse are more likely to move into natural cavities or an abandoned woodpecker hole.  But when these are not available they will utilize bird houses.  So will the Carolina wren.  But the wren will also nest in totally inappropriate areas like in a pot of ivy (which made it hard to water the plant), and in a strip of plastic that held yard tools.

Once I went to a friend’s houseand was greeted with a “DO NOT KNOCK” sign near the doorbell.  When I looked around, a Carolina wren had nested in the middle of the circular wreath hanging on their door with young in the nest. I have heard stories about them nesting in bumpers of cars that were parked in the back yard and in garden boots left on the back porch.

So by all means use birdhouses as design elements in your garden. They are a great way to jazz up an area or better yet see what you can attract to your yard with birdhouses.

BLUEBIRD BOXES


Measurements:
4” X 5”
Entrance size: 1 3/32”

The North America Bluebird Society has nest box specifications for making these boxes.
http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org

PURPLE MARTIN HOUSES

Measurements:
6” X 6” or preferably 7” X 12”
Entrance size: 2 1/8”

Find more about purple martins at the
Purple Martin Conservation Association.
http://purplemartin.org/

BARN OWL BOXES

Measurements:  
16” X 16”
Entrance size: 6”

Refer to this site for information on constructing barn owl boxes:
http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/wabarnowl.asp
This church birdhouse in Master Gardener Linda Valdez’s yard is a decorative accent as well as a temporary home to visiting birds.
The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, Texas 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.