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Mountain Home Magazine

If You Build It…

May the bluebird of happiness fly up your road

Despite its conspicuous location, the blind set up in my backyard wasn’t the least bit offensive to the bluebirds that were tending their hatchlings in the weathered pine box a few yards away. Crouched inside the blind on a perfect May morning was an eager photographer—me—looking through my tripod-mounted camera. With the feeding session in progress, and my finger busy with the shutter release button, the camera counter tallied the images one by one until I’d satisfied my quest of capturing these colorful birds associated with happiness.

And happy they made me—not just for the photos, but for their welcomed occupancy of the wooden box apparently built to their liking. A natural cavity in a tree adjacent to clearings and meadows makes a bluebird happiest, but when those sites are scarce, a home built from a board will most certainly do just fine.

At one time, Eastern bluebird populations had declined to perilous levels from lack of adequate nesting sites due in part to development, competition with other bird species, and the modification of agricultural and timberland methods. With fears of extinction in the wind, conservation groups and backyard birders went to work erecting and monitoring an astonishing number of nesting houses, and encouraging others to do the same. While those efforts have helped the species achieve a remarkable recovery, that positive course can easily continue if others join in. It’s as simple as buying a bluebird-specific house or houses, and placing them in key locations on your property. If your local farm and garden center has birdhouses, they’ll most likely have one designed for bluebirds. Coveside, well-known for wildlife conservation products, handcrafts birdhouses for every species of cavity-nesting bird in North America. Visit them online if you strike out locally.

But nothing is more satisfying than building your own birdhouse— especially when it’s finally occupied. The house you build can be as crude or as elaborate as your carpentry talent and tools dictate. The important point is that you just do it, “for the birds!” The tree cavities that bluebirds use are far from being fashioned from a blueprint. Imagine the range of dimensions and flaws amongst the scanty possibilities, and don’t be bashful about putting something together that isn’t flush level perfect.

While I’ve bought a few bluebird houses in the past, I now construct my own, mostly from the rough cut lumber sawn from the trees on our farm, but occasionally from finished lumber purchased at our nearest building supply center. Eastern white pine—readily available and a joy to work with—is my favorite. A ten dollar bill will buy a 1” x 8” x 8’ smooth pine board, enough material to build a couple houses, and the smooth finish will impart a look of elegance. The same dimensions in a rough-cut pine board from the nearest sawmill will buy you four boards for ten dollars.

White Pine is easy to work with both hand and machine tools. It sands fast, accepts a variety of fasteners without the need to pre-drill, doesn’t split…and emits that wonderful pine fragrance. The wood also has a good level of decay resistance. Some of the houses that we have scattered around the backyard have seen many a sunrise, and all of them are a long ways from a renovation—and that’s without any paint or preservatives which you shouldn’t use anyway for the birds’ sake.

I’ve incorporated bits and pieces from the Internet into my own hand-built structures. Ventilation slits, inside footholds for fledglings, latch openings for easy cleaning, and recessed floors with drainage holes are worthwhile designs. These may be considered luxuries, but bluebirds deserve whatever you’re capable of adding, which equates to better chances of survival.

The non-native House or English sparrow—which prefers similar nesting designs and locations to bluebirds—is a notorious enemy. These aggressive birds will take over a bluebird house by killing young and adult alike. That’s why it’s extremely important to monitor nesting sites frequently, and execute the necessary deterrents to make sure these, as well as other flying or crawling pests, stay away. The recommended one-and-a-half-inch entrance hole in bluebird houses stops larger species like starlings from gaining access, but unfortunately it’s the right size for sparrows and house wrens, which are also egg and hatchling destroyers.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky have discovered that a slot entrance and a floor at a much shallower depth than commonly endorsed are two improvements that can obstruct and possibly defeat a sparrow’s intentions. So if that species is a resident of your neck of the woods, it would certainly warrant checking into (and Coveside manufactures a sparrow-resistant house). The sheds and barns on our farm are magnets for nest- building sparrows, which make them year-round residents. So it’s not uncommon for them to wreak havoc in our backyard.

The establishment of territories amongst bluebirds begins in March, so if I’ve talked you into helping these beautiful feathered friends, it’s time to start shopping for a house. If you’ve decided you’re going to play Mr. Do-It-Yourself, before you start the saw recite this old adage: measure twice, cut once. Whatever you do, best wishes getting ready for your bluebirds!

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