As spring arrives and backyard birds start searching for nesting sites, you may be wondering – should I put anything inside my birdhouses to help the birds out? As an avid gardener and birding enthusiast here in Wisconsin, this is a question I get all the time. The answer, it turns out, is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. Join me as we dive into the details and unpack everything you need to know about preparing your birdhouses.
- 1 Understanding Birdhouse Basics
- 2 To Add or Not to Add: The Debate
- 3 Safe nesting materials for birds
- 4 When and What to Add to Birdhouses (If Anything)
- 5 Birdhouse Placement and Design Considerations
- 6 Preparing Birdhouses for Different Seasons
- 7 Creating a Welcoming Habitat Around the Birdhouse
- 8 The Joy of Birdhouses
Understanding Birdhouse Basics
Before we decide what to put in a birdhouse, let’s back up and review some key facts about these handy structures. Birdhouses, as you likely know, provide safe, enclosed spaces for birds to build nests and raise their young. They mimic the natural cavities that many species nest in out in the wild.
There are birdhouses suited for all species – wrens, chickadees, bluebirds, woodpeckers, and more. The hole size, interior dimensions, height off the ground, and materials used all determine what birds your house will attract. Proper placement is also critical, as different birds have diverse habitat preferences. Bluebird houses, for example, should face open fields, while chickadee houses can be tucked into wooded areas.
It’s incredible to observe the architectural marvels birds construct with their nests in the wild. Species like orioles weave pendulous woven pouches. Hummingbirds craft tiny, soft-lined cups out of plant down and spider silk. And woodpeckers chisel out solid tree cavity homes. Regarding nesting behaviors, our backyard birds exhibit a stunning diversity!
To Add or Not to Add: The Debate
Now that we understand the basics, let’s move on to the pressing question – should you supplement the interior of birdhouses with nesting materials? There’s long been a debate around this practice.
On the one hand, many people believe that giving birds a head start with materials will help them. Some everyday items people add are:
- Dryer lint (warning: I don’t recommend this risky material!)
- Pet fur or human hair
- Twigs and straw
- Leaves or pine needles
The intention is good here. But in most cases, it’s unnecessary and could even be harmful. Birds innately know how to build nests suited to their species’ needs. And they take pride in gathering materials from their surroundings.
For example, accomplished weaver bird species like the Baya Weaver intentionally refine and perfect their technique over successive nests. Adding improper materials can interfere with this vital learning process for juvenile birds. Synthetic materials like dryer lint can degrade into dangerous substances for nestlings.
When it comes to birdhouse materials, it’s safest to let the birds decide. Provide them with a sturdy, weatherproof wooden box in a suitable habitat, and let their instincts take care of the rest.
Safe nesting materials for birds
There are many safe nesting materials for birds, but some of the most popular are birch bark, pine needles, cedar shavings, straw, cotton, and paper. Birds will use these materials to build their nests, which will provide a safe place for them to lay their eggs and raise their young.
When and What to Add to Birdhouses (If Anything)
Now, I don’t want to imply you should never supplement birdhouses. There are a few scenarios where providing materials makes sense:
- If natural materials are scarce in your area, giving birds a starter set of nesting resources can be helpful. This is especially true if you want to encourage nesting in a new birdhouse location.
- In icy climates, adding insulating materials like bark strips may provide extra warmth.
Rehabilitating injured or hand-raised birds may require showing them suitable nesting materials if they lack experience.
If you do opt to supplement nests, make sure only to provide natural materials birds would source themselves in the wild:
- Twigs, grasses, bark strips
- Moss, lichen
- Shed feathers
- Pet fur (caution – avoid chemically treated fur)
- Spider silk
- Cotton, wool (100% natural fibers – no synthetics)
Steer clear of anything plastic or synthetic, as well as treated wood shavings. The health and safety of birds always comes first. When in doubt, let birds gather their materials around your yard and neighborhood.
Birdhouse Placement and Design Considerations
To encourage birds to take up residence, proper placement and design of your birdhouses is critical. Here are some tips:
- Mount houses at least 5-6 feet off the ground on sturdy poles or tree trunks, out of reach of predators.
- Face the entrance away from prevailing winds and rain.
- Place houses between 50-100 yards apart to reduce competition. Exceptions are purple martins, which prefer colonies.
- Use untreated wood no thicker than 1-1.5 inches for proper insulation. Avoid metal or plastic houses.
- Match the entrance hole size to the species you want to attract—1.5 inches for chickadees, 1 1/8 inches for house wrens, etc.
Pay special attention to placing your birdhouse in an optimal habitat for the desired species. Bluebirds thrive in open fields, while woodpeckers like forests. Providing food and water sources nearby also increases the appeal. With careful placement and design tailored to the species, you can entice birds to take up residence!
Preparing Birdhouses for Different Seasons
To keep your birdhouses safe and appealing to birds year-round, some seasonal maintenance is required:
- Thoroughly clean out old nests and sanitize the interior with a non-toxic solution (1 bleach to 9 parts water works well). This helps prevent parasites.
- Make any necessary repairs and ensure the house is secured tightly.
- Consider adding a few starter twigs, but allow birds to finish constructing their nests.
- Monitor houses for pests like mites or signs of damage and make repairs as needed.
- Avoid disturbing nests once eggs are laid.
- Clean outhouses again once all young have fully fledged.
- Apply fresh natural wood preservative or non-toxic paint if needed.
- Make final autumn repairs and reinforce the structure against winter weather.
- Some birds roost in houses over winter. You can remove perches to discourage this if desired.
Cleaning birdhouses between seasons is crucial for keeping the birds and their environments healthy and parasite-free. Timing cleanings after the nesting and fledging ultimately reduce disturbance. Properly maintained birdhouses will continue welcoming new feathered tenants for years.
Creating a Welcoming Habitat Around the Birdhouse
A well-designed birdhouse isn’t complete without an equally bird-friendly yard habitat around it. Follow these tips to make birds feel at home:
- Landscape with native plants – they provide essential food sources and materials for birds. I’m partial to serviceberry, elderberry, goldenrod, and asters native to Wisconsin.
- Add a small birdbath for drinking and bathing – keep it clean and mold-free.
- Offer supplemental food with bird feeders, but focus on quality seeds and suet – not cheap filler seed mixes.
- Allow some areas to remain “messy” with leaf litter, brush piles, etc. Birds appreciate the shelter and foraging opportunities.
- Avoid pesticides and herbicides – prioritize organic methods like my homemade compost tea fertilizer.
- Set out natural materials birds can incorporate into nests, like pet fur, twigs, moss, and wool.
- Place houses out of reach of predators like cats, raccoons, and snakes.
Creating a safe, welcoming habitat tailored to backyard birds’ needs takes knowledge and diligence. But the reward of seeing vibrant species flock to your space makes it all worthwhile. Observe and listen closely to note what your feathered residents prefer. After all, every yard and its bird community is unique.
The Joy of Birdhouses
This guide gives you the confidence to craft and care for the best birdhouses on the block. Don’t forget to send me photos and updates on the bird families residing in your neck of the Wisconsin woods each season! There are few delights, like watching a pair of chickadees diligently feeding their chicks or seeing a vibrant bluebird fledgling take its first flight. With proper preparation and habitat enrichment, your birdhouses will abound with life for years.
So let those birdhouse preparations commence – and leave the nest-building to the experts (our fine feathered friends, that is). Here’s to a rewarding season of birding adventures ahead!