University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
If you want to be successful at attracting birds to your landscape, you
can’t just buy any birdhouse and put it anywhere. Birds are particular
in what type of house construction they prefer (such as depth and hole
opening), as well as where the birdhouse is placed. Buy or build the
right type house for the birds that you want to attract, then place them
properly, and you’ll not only have better luck attracting birds, but will be
providing them with a safe home.
Of the 85 or so species of North American birds that live in “cavities”,
about three dozen also can be attracted to birdhouses. You’ll find
nests of others in trees or shrubs. Some of these can be attracted to
birdhouses open on the front, or “nesting shelves”.
Mount nesting shelves under the eaves of a building or deck for the phoebe,
in a barn or similar building for a swallow, and on the side of an arbor or
building for a robin. While the phoebe needs a source of mud for its
nest, the robin nest a grassy area to hunt for worms. Shelves for mourning
doves should be mounted in tree branches 6 to 10 feet off the ground.
For these you also can provide a cone of hardware cloth on which to build
their nests. Simply cut a wedge shape out of a 12-inch square piece of
this wire mesh, then attach the cut ends, forming a cone.
Proper mounting to deter predators is important for safety of birds and
their young. Mounting the birdhouse on a metal pole makes it harder for a
predator to gain access than if it were on a tree or wooden post.
Experts usually recommend to avoid mounting houses on trees just because of
this, particularly if there are squirrels or cats in the vicinity, or
raccoons that easily climb posts. If you do use wooden posts, install a
baffle or guard below the birdhouse. A piece of stovepipe around a pole
makes a good baffle. If you’re in an area where snakes may climb posts
to get at the birds, wrap deer or bird netting around the post to prevent
them. Baffles and even grease on poles won’t work to stop snakes
Look for a birdhouse with some form of mounting device already attached.
Mounting height varies with species, from 4 to 8 feet above ground for
chickadees and titmice; 5 to 10 feet above ground for bluebirds, house
wrens, nuthatches, and tree swallows; 15 feet high for bats and purple
martins (bats have special house needs); and 8 to 20 feet high for
Location of birdhouses also is important, depending on what species of birds
you want to attract. Bluebirds prefer an area facing, or surrounded
by, open fields where they can feed on insects. They like a tree 20 or
30 feet in front of their house so they have a place for their young to fly,
or to perch and watch for unwanted guests. As with most birdhouses,
orient them facing away from prevailing winds to provide the inhabitants
more protection in bad weather.
On the other hand, chickadees prefer their homes in a small stand of trees
or large shrubs. For house wrens, mount their houses on a small tree or post
in an open yard. Place houses for tree swallows near water if
possible, where they can feed on aquatic insects. Purple martins like
apartment houses with many holes for communal living, mounted high above
open spaces. Woodpeckers like their houses mounted on trees, preferably in
woodlands. If mounting birdhouses in a managed lawn or landscape,
don’t place them where pesticides are used. These not only may harm birds,
but also will destroy their main food source—insects.
Since birds are rather territorial during breeding and nesting, you may only
get a pair or two of a particular species nesting, unless you live on
several acres. A rule of thumb is to have no more than four birdhouses in an
acre area. While a small city or town lot may only be large enough to
host a pair of wrens or other species, larger rural expanses and lots will
One solution towards attracting the most bird species is to have several
different types of houses, in different parts of your landscape.
Another method is to pair houses back to back, or on poles about 25 feet
apart. While birds of the same species usually won’t next nearby,
different ones such as tree swallows and bluebirds will.
Having swallows nesting nearby also may help deter the main problem
birds—house wrens, house sparrows and starlings. While the latter two
are introduced species to this country, and so you can destroy their nests,
the house wrens should be left alone as they are legally protected.
Having nesting boxes just for them, in the habitat they like, may keep them
from invading other birdhouses.
Place houses for swallows at least 30 to 35 feet apart, shelves for robins
at least 65 feet apart, boxes for house wrens about 100 feet apart, 300 feet
apart or more for wrens and bluebirds, and those for chickadees over 600
feet apart. Recommended for mourning doves is one nesting site for
each 2.5 acres, and one site per 6 acres for the brown-headed nuthatch.
Get birdhouses up as soon as possible in the spring, by mid- to late-March
is ideal. Even if they aren’t up by then, they still may be used by
birds this spring, or used later in the summer, and will be ready for next
year. In addition to all the details on bird nesting from the Cornell
Lab of Ornithology (nestwatch.org), another complete resource is available
online from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (www.fws.gov/birds/). Under
this site follow the links to “bird enthusiasts”, on to “backyard”, then to
“homes for birds.”
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