A better birdhouse

Anna’s hummingbird


He’s up in the tree tops all the day long, hoppin’ and a boppin’
and a-singin’ his song


Homeowners looking for a robin to be rocking on over to their
house have a bevy of choices when it comes to nest boxes and
feeders, both of which can not only improve the beauty of their
yards, but help to sustain local bird populations.
“He’s up in the tree tops all the day long, hoppin’ and a boppin’ and a-singin’ his song…”

Homeowners looking for a robin to be rocking on over to their house have a bevy of choices when it comes to nest boxes and feeders, both of which can not only improve the beauty of their yards, but help to sustain local bird populations.

With more than 20 cavity-nesting species living in the South Valley, there’s plenty of diversity.

Birds benefit from the arrangement, too, as habitat for small species becomes harder to find thanks to modern efforts to remove dead trees and other hazards, said David Houston, co-ordinator of the California Bluebird Recovery Program for the Audubon Society as well as chief steward of the Arastradero Nature Preserve in Palo Alto.

So far, the program has hung more than 500 nest boxes with the help of 100 volunteers, said Houston.

The boxes are then hung throughout the area and checked on a weekly basis, said Houston.

The man, it seems, knows just about everything there is to know about local birds, and that knowledge influences his approach to building a perfect birdhouse with simplicity and function in mind.

“There are two things to really think about when you’re building a bird house: Predators and the first flight,” said Houston. “The little birds don’t fly too well, maybe 10 yards at most on their first try. You don’t want hard surfaces like a patio or walkway.”

Houston advises looking for an area with tall grass or a tree present.

He also prefers hanging boxes, which are harder for predators to access because they hang from long wires suspended in the tree.

Another good option is mounting the bird house on a metal pole, which is difficult for most predators to climb.

Snakes, opossums and other animals will often find small bird nests, and cavity dwellers are particularly vulnerable. Hence Houston’s weekly checks. When predators begin to find the nest on a regular basis, it’s time to move the structure, even if it’s just a few feet.

“If the tree’s big enough, you can put it on the other side of the tree and they won’t be able to find it, so it doesn’t have to be too big of a move,” said Houston.

If homeowners are worried about birds finding them, they shouldn’t be, said Steve Miser, owner of San Juan Bautista Bird Farm.

“Feed them, and they will come,” said Miser. “It turns out to be like a welfare state, so serve them, and they will come.”

To make a yard especially appealing, go gourmet with Wild Bird Seed or imported Niger seed (also spelled Nyger or Nyjer). Not only will it deter invasive species of birds from dining there, but it will keep local birds coming back for more.

“The feed you buy at the store is generally not very high quality,” said Miser. “They’re going for bulk, so a lot of times its last year’s seed and it will consist of cheap corn millet and some older or cheaper sunflower seeds.”

Suet is also a good option for some local birds, though Miser cautions that any food must be protected from other species that might not be so welcome around a home.

“Keep in mind the way you put up the feeder because when you put feed out for birds, they’ll come, and they’ll eat it, but so will opossums and mice and rats,” said Miser.

If you are considering purchasing a nest box or building one yourself, here are a few guidelines from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The box should be made of untreated wood (pine, cedar, or fir) and have:

• thick walls (at least 3/4 inches)

• an extended, sloped roof

• rough or grooved interior walls

• recessed floor

• drainage holes

• ventilation holes

• easy access for monitoring and cleaning

• sturdy construction

• no outside perches

Beyond that, said Houston, medium-sized birds like blue jays and swallows need a base that is around a five-by-five inch square with a 1 1/2 inch hole for an opening.

Smaller wrens and chickadees like more secluded surroundings, so they are most comfortable with a four inch square base and a 1 1/4 inch hole.

For more information on the Audubon Society and its programs, visit their Web site at www.scvas.org. Curious homeowners can learn more about local wildlife by visiting the Web site for Coe Park, www.CoePark.org.

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