By Rocky Hoffman, NEBRASKAland Magazine
Watching a family of birds grow to maturity is a backyard pleasure sometimes overlooked. These "one-board" and "two-board" birdhouse plans can help you become the landlord for a variety of feathered tenants.
The barn swallows showed up when the first exterior wall of our new home was hoisted into place, and they began building mud outcroppings above the window frames on which to balance their eggs before the roof was on. We guessed they would plague us forever, shackling mud on the exterior paint and sending streaks of white droppings down the siding.
"Just part of country life," we concluded, but as we applied the final coat of paint under a sweltering sun, the thought of the swallows, the mud and the droppings began to haunt me. I stuck my brush back into the bucket, descended the ladder and began rummaging through the garage. Among the clutter from the recent move I uncovered a block of railcar refrigeration cork that I had promised myself would someday provide the material for a nice set of mallard decoys.
The color and the texture had a remarkable resemblance to a swallow's mud nest. I cut out a half circle on the bandsaw, hollowed out a neat depression and mounted it on a pine board screwed to the siding just above a garage window.
Said the other painter, "What's that supposed to be?"
Said I, "An artificial swallow's nest." We continued to paint.
The following spring was wet, and the abundance of puddles in the drive attracted an even greater abundance of swallows, who set to work hauling muddy mortar to outbuildings and chicken coups. One pair, however, was attracted to the cork look-alike nest. They could have moved right in-it was a turn-key operation-but to claim ownership rights, they needed to pound a nail or two of their own, and they placed a token amount of mud around the rim of the nest depression. A few feathers molded into the bottom, a romantic afternoon, and eggs were laid. And no mud touched the newly painted siding.
Remarkably, after the chicks hatched, there were no white streaks, either, because the mounting board held the nest away from
the house. The other painter apologized for her skepticism, and we enjoyed watching the swallows feed and finally leave with their young.
The next year we expected the swallows to renest and produce another brood, but, within a week, a delicate little Say's phoebe with an apricot complexion arrived and set to work dispatching the previous tenants' nest lining of feathers and debris. Quickly relining the depression with phoebe-preferred litter, she deposited her eggs and began to incubate. She did not relinquish the nest for several years.
I thought it remarkable that two species of birds would occupy the same nest structure in a single season, especially an artificial structure. I began to experiment with nest boxes, establishing a bluebird trail around our 20 acres and sticking house wren apartments up on every conceivable support. No hollow log ever went into the wood stove. Each was fitted with a top and bottom, and an entrance hole was carved in the side. I salvaged old wood duck boxes that were being replaced by the Boy Scouts along the river and hoisted them up in the mature cottonwoods, not to attract ducks (the nearest water is three miles
from our place), but to provide housing for species that compete with wood ducks.
By late spring, red-headed woodpeckers had enlarged the holes of some of the bluebird boxes and moved in. Chickadees had taken up residence in some of the wren boxes. Wrens were living in the few bluebird houses that the woodpeckers ignored, and, of course, a pair of wood ducks sat contentedly on one of the duck boxes. It's nice when a plan is so wonderfully conceived.
Most of the boxes were in use, and none of the residents were undesirable species such as house sparrows or European starlings. Obviously a lack of natural cavities in the area made the artificial structures popular with the cavity nesters. The birds thrived, and most raised young. Apparently the lack of natural cavities was the limiting factor in the total habitat picture, and
once that need was satisfied, even artificially, the carrying capacity improved dramatically for species that ordinarily depend on a hole in a dead tree for a place to raise their young.
Over the years, with proper guidance from expert bird hobbyists and professionals, I've begun to target species with specifically designed houses, to protect nesting birds from house predators, and to avoid some of the pitfalls and design flaws that basement carpenters often stumble into when building birdhouses. In recent years, I've nested bluebirds, house wrens, chickadees,
red-headed woodpeckers, flickers, American kestrels, screech owls, wood ducks and fox squirrels in houses specifically designed for those species. Usually it doesn't matter if a non-targeted species moves into a house, but woodworking for wildlife should not bolster the ranks of pests like the English sparrow or European starling that jeopardize native species.
Birdhouses need not be complex or ornate, but great care must be given to dimensions and entrance-hole sizes. Birds often accept or reject a house primarily because of where it is placed and the dimensions of its entrance-hole. The accompanying plans are simple, and make use of right-angle cuts. Most are "one board" or "two-board" plans that require minimal raw materials.
Building and placing artificial houses is not the end of the process. Annual maintenance is essential to ensure that birds continue to use them and for the safety and health of birds. Moreover, artificial nest boxes do not eliminate the need for the management, protection and enhancement of natural habitat. Dead trees and snags will do much more for cavity nesters than what the well-intentioned woodworker can do in a lifetime.