Because I live in the Hudson Valley, where birding is not just a hobby but a way of life, almost everyone I know keeps birdhouses in their yards. (At one point, my parents had six of them).
But not all birdhouses are created equally — and in fact, the most beautiful ones on the market might not actually be conducive to attracting birds. We spoke to six birders, all of whom emphasized that you shouldn’t buy a birdhouse just because it catches your eye. According to Matt Mendenhall, editor of BirdWatching magazine, the “colorful, decorative, sometimes showy” birdhouses that people are often drawn to aren’t particularly inviting to birds. “We birders don’t suggest decorative birdhouses for outdoor use.”
If you’re looking for a birdhouse — or “nest boxes” as many of our birders call them — we found plenty of nice looking, expert-recommended options, plus some tips to help you shop for one that will safely house birds native to your area and keep the ecosystem around you intact.
Know what kind of birds you’d like to attract
Before hanging birdhouses around your yard, research which birds predominantly live in your area to find out what size of house you need and ensure you won’t accidentally attract the wrong kind of bird. The house sparrow, for instance, “will nest wherever and are pretty aggressive,” says Jillian Bell, bird-friendly communities program associate at Audubon Connecticut. You can avoid attracting them if you don’t buy a house too big for your native birds, such as a chickadee or house wren, which don’t need a ton of room.
It’s also important to understand that not all birds use birdhouses. A bird house is “simulating a tree hole,” explains Robyn Bailey, project leader of NestWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and only “about 85 species in North America will use tree holes.” Be aware that anything marketed to attract birds like hummingbirds, cardinals, or blue jays won’t actually bring them to your yard because they don’t use boxes.
To figure out what lives in your area, NestWatch — which came recommended to us by more than just Bailey, who runs the project — offers a helpful, interactive resource for the United States and Canada. It will also tell you how big of a nest box to get, where to place it, and how far apart each box should be if you would like multiple throughout your yard.
Focus on materials
Look for a sturdy wooden birdhouse, says Bell, who also recommends staying away from nest boxes made from synthetic materials and treated wood. “Pressure-treated wood has a lot of chemicals in it that are not great for the bird,” she adds. While our experts suggest keeping the birdhouse unpainted, Bell notes that as long as it’s non-toxic paint, you won’t harm the bird. Bailey says to use “natural and earth tones that match the surroundings,” and notes that while there’s no scientific evidence out there to confirm that it’s bad to paint the house in bright shades, “neon colors probably would not be my first choice.”
Size does matter
Our experts say to consider both the size of the birdhouse and the size of the hole. You want to make sure to pick a birdhouse suitable for the size of bird you’d like to attract— a small bird really doesn’t need much space. “Bird houses with a 1.25- to 1.75-inch entrance hole are large enough for most wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers,” notes environmental educator Sheridan Alford. Bluebirds prefer a 1.5-inch entrance, according to Bell, who says this is the most popular bird people ask her about. If you want more specifics, NestWatch offers a handy guide.
Birds don’t like to share
Those fancy condo-inspired birdhouses with more than one hole are a waste of money, according to the experts we spoke to. “Most birds don’t really like townhouse living,” says Bailey. There are exceptions. The purple martin, for instance, is a very social bird that likes to live close together. But most birds are territorial, so you’d be better off getting multiple smaller houses that you can space out around your yard.
Think about the weather
If you live in a relatively wet, rainy area or one that gets a lot of snow, you need to take the roof shape into consideration, too. “I prefer a flat roof to a peaked roof,” says Bailey. In her experience, peaked roofs can allow water to come through if they’re not properly sealed, which will leak directly onto the nest. Bailey says to stick to flat, sloped roofs that promote proper run off. If your birdhouse doesn’t have an angle, you can always install it downward “at about ten degrees,” Bailey adds, to get the slope you need.
Don’t get a perch
While a perch might look whimsical on a birdhouse, it actually opens the bird up to potential danger because a predator can use it as leverage to get inside. Besides, birds don’t need it — they can just fly straight into the box without it.
Some birdhouses that fit the criteria:
As we mentioned, cedar works well for birdhouses because of how durable and sturdy it is. But this one is a touch more special than your run-of-the-mill birdhouse because it has “a raised edge around the hole for predator protection as well as a latch to easily open and clean the inside,” says Alford. It has a 1-9/16-inch hole, which our experts recommend for mountain bluebirds and a few flycatchers. Alford notes because it’s large enough for other birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, it might attract them, too. She recommends placing it at 5 to 10 feet above ground for songbirds and 15 to 20 feet up for woodpeckers. As for bluebirds, Bailey says the height doesn’t really matter much to them.
Because purple martins like to live in colonies, as we mentioned, if you live in an area that can attract them, buying a house like this will give them a comfortable environment, says Annie Novak, author of The Rooftop Growing Guide. You more or less have to “cross your fingers” and hope they’ll come to you, but a box like this is a good start.
This one comes recommended by Bell (who, full disclosure, works for Audubon). Their models fit the criteria for a good birdhouse to the T and they’re available almost everywhere. This one is made from a thick cedar, so it’ll be extremely sturdy, and it has a sloped roof that overhangs for great protection from the rain. And you can open the front panel to easily clean it out every season. This one specifically works for bluebirds, but they have options for wrens, too, which Novak recommends buying if “you live in the burbs” because you’ll often “find house wrens singing from shrubby, well-covered spaces.”
These aren’t made from wood, as we suggested — they’re actually made from recycled milk jugs — but Mendenhall recommends Wild Birds Unlimited because they make a trustworthy product that also happens to be environmentally friendly. The nest box has drainage and ventilation holes. And though it features a peaked roof that Bailey advised against, this one is sealed and offers proper drainage, so the nest is not at risk. This particular one has a 1.5-inch diameter, so it’s ideal for bluebirds, but they offer many other sizes.
Because you can’t have a birdhouse without a feeder, here are some recommendations for that, too:
Our experts note that you should consider getting a feeder to fully support the birds living around you. Just make sure you don’t put them too close to the boxes because that can lead predators directly to the birds. If you live in a house, Bailey suggests putting the feeder in your front yard and the nest boxes in the back. Juita Martinez, a Ph.D student studying environmental and evolutionary biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, says this is her “favorite platform feeder” because it’s “extremely durable and easy to clean.” She explains, “The metal grates at the bottom allows for drainage and airflow so your feed doesn’t get moldy.” And because of how accessible it is for all types of birds, you can attract the largest variety with it.
You can’t house a hummingbird, but it might be nice to feed them — and Martinez recommends this one. She has both the 8 ounce and the 16 ounce feeders, noting whichever size you get, they’re both “easy to disassemble, which makes cleaning a breeze.” It has a “bee guard” on it, but Martinez actually recommends removing that because it “can damage hummingbird beaks.” It also has an ant moat, which “prevents any ants from taking over the feeder, which is a huge bonus.”
If you’re worried about squirrels getting to your feeders, Martinez suggests these because they “do the trick to deter squirrels,” which she says can empty the feeder within a day, “if not hours.” These feeders “eliminate the need for a squirrel baffle” — that big dome that some keep on top of their feeders — because the weight of a squirrel will close the shroud that lets out seeds. When it’s open, though, multiple birds can feed at the same time.
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