Column: Birdhouse do's and don'ts
Home-owners living in areas where there are few trees will quickly discover that there are not very many cavity-nesting birds on their property. Birdhouses will either have a perpetual "vacancy" sign or they will be inhabited by non-native bird species such as house sparrows and European starlings.
How successful you will be in attracting birds to birdhouses largely depends upon where you live. Cavity-nesting birds typically occur in forested environments. Cavity-nesting bird species such as woodpeckers and nuthatches prefer trees that have sufficient girth to support creating a hollow in the trunk of the tree.
Interestingly, most cavity-nesting species rely on the work of other birds to create cavities in the trunks of trees. Examples of cavity-nesters in the Central Highlands area include violet-green swallows, western bluebirds, bridled and juniper titmouse, mountain chickadee, Lucy's warbler, Bewick's wren, ash-throated flycatchers, American kestrel and western-screech owl.
However, none of these species has the right beak structure to excavate their own nesting cavity, so they rely on flickers, woodpeckers and nuthatches to create cavities suitable for nesting. Mother Nature also creates naturally occurring cavities such as when a tree limbs breaks, leaving a cavity where it was attached to a tree.
Most of the bird species that occur in this area do not use nesting boxes. Instead, species such as lesser goldfinches, western scrub-jays, house finches, orioles and grosbeaks build a neatly woven cup-shaped nest either in a tree or shrub. Even if you provide a birdhouse, these birds will ignore it and build their nests in trees and shrubs.
Assuming your habitat is conducive to cavity-nesting birds, here are some guidelines for placing your birdhouses. First, it is recommended that the birdhouse faces the opposite direction from our prevailing winds. This means, as much as practical, birdhouses should face a northeasterly direction.
The height where you place bird boxes should be at least five feet off the ground. However, you can mount them at any height you can reach safely. Do not put birdhouses near birdfeeders or water sources that are designed to attract birds. With few exceptions, birds like their privacy when rearing young - to protect their nest from predators. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. Swallows, bluebirds and flycatchers prefer to nest in birdhouses that are out in an open, exposed location.
Shade is not a requirement, but if you can provide some protection from the hot late-afternoon sun, I would try to accommodate that. The benefit that foliage provides is concealing the location of the birdhouse, more than protecting it from the sun. Good-quality birdhouses should be vented adequately to provide ventilation for the adults sitting on eggs and for the babies after hatching. Birdhouses should be easy to clean so you can remove the previous year's nests.
With the onset of unseasonably warm temperatures, you may consider cleaning out your old birdhouses right now and possibly replacing your old, falling-apart bird houses. In March, start providing nesting material such as cottontail nesting balls, pet hair, dryer lint or small strands of thread or yarn. Nesting material can be placed near your feeding stations, but don't place it near your birdhouses, as you might end up drawing attention to the location of an active nest.
We are still looking for places to go for the Great Backyard Bird Count on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 13 and 14. Please call the store at 928-443-5900 if you are willing to host a group of about 12 birders for 45 minutes to an hour.
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona - 1046 Willow Creek Road in Prescott, and 2360 State Highway 89A in Sedona. Eric has been an avid birder for 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email firstname.lastname@example.org.