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Building birdhouses — a good indoor winter activity

Looking for a project while waiting for warmer weather? Why not try this?

If you’re interested in birds or the outdoors, but not keen on cold-weather activities, why not spend some time inside planning and building birdhouses? Most are not too difficult to make, but they do require some preparation.

First, decide what type of bird you plan to build for, as different species have different requirements and/or preferences. One species that many birders make houses for is the bluebird. Our province has two distinct types: the eastern bluebird found across most of southern Manitoba, and the mountain bluebird mainly in the very western parts (with some overlapping of the types). A bluebird house is also attractive to tree swallows, which are also beneficial.

Friends of the Bluebirds, a Manitoba group that puts up birdhouses and monitors their success, provides information and detailed plans for bluebird boxes. Don’t make the houses too big, as many bluebirds seem to prefer a smaller box — perhaps because it’s faster to construct a nest. For eastern bluebirds, a four-inch square floor size is adequate, but mountain bluebirds prefer a five-inch floor.

Eastern bluebird house.
photo: Gamache Photos

Once you’ve chosen a plan, you need supplies. Suitable types of wood include spruce, pine, cedar or plywood. A cheap source is pallet scrap wood but this requires more work and may not be thick enough. Make sure the lumber is sufficiently thick, three-quarters inch at least. This is to help prevent overheating on hot summer days, and to provide some warmth in cold spring weather.

The box should be made to be opened from the top, front or side for cleaning out old nests. The entrance can be a slot or a hole (1-1/2 inches for the eastern variety and 1-9/16 inches for mountain bluebirds). Bluebird houses don’t require a perch, and are better without them, as it tends to attract sparrows. If you paint your construction (which is not really necessary), use a light colour so it won’t absorb too much heat.

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Study the habitat before putting out birdhouses. In Manitoba, bluebirds don’t normally nest in yards; they prefer short-grass pastures away from farmyards where house sparrows and wrens may destroy bluebird nests or their young. Also, the houses are better away from busy highways, and should not be near crops that will be sprayed with insecticides, as that could destroy the bluebirds’ food source.

But perhaps you want your birdhouse in a yard close to home, so that you can watch the birds more easily. In that case, you will most readily attract house sparrows and wrens, and occasionally tree swallows. If you don’t want sparrows, make a box with a smaller hole for wrens — 1-1/8 inches is best, and a four-inch square house is large enough.

Purple martins are another species that can be attracted to yards. Their house is totally different, as they like to nest in multi-roomed apartment-like houses, so this is a more ambitious project. They can be built with as few as four rooms, or as many as 32 or more. Plans and directions are found on a variety of websites. Martin houses need to be mounted at a height of 10 to 20 feet above ground, and at least 30 to 40 feet away from buildings and large trees. A predator guard may be needed to protect against squirrels.

Another very different type is a birdhouse for wood ducks. Ready-made types, sometimes of tin, are often used, but wooden ones are recommended to avoid heat buildup. They can be constructed of plywood, or even from a hollow log, but also need a predator guard on the post. Sometimes wood duck houses are put out during winter months so they can be nailed to trees at the very edge of a lake or creek. Occasionally goldeneyes or mergansers will also use these nest boxes.

Other duck species, such as mallards, are sometimes provided with hen house nests by organizations such as Ducks Unlimited. These ones need to be constructed in winter because they go in the middle of a pond or slough and are usually put out while it is possible to walk on the ice. They are made using durable grass, hay or straw, wire mesh fencing, and a variety of steel rods and pipes.

Whatever type you want to build, take time to research requirements and plans before you begin; your chances of success in attracting birds will be better.

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