Since a home is normally filled with prized possessions—cute smallish snuggly things—it makes sense to keep it nice and tidy and safe. Homes of birds are no exception. Bird nests are marvels of architecture—built with specific materials and meticulously maintained. Even a relatively simple nest is often elegantly constructed. A yellow warbler’s may have coarse twigs at the base, finer plant fibers and grasses intertwined with weeds and plant stems inside the open cup, and plant down and wool within the inner lining. A more intricate nest, such as that of the Baltimore oriole, may require actual plant fiber weaving or knot-tying to secure materials. Yes. Knot-tying.
Nest-building materials are species-specific—mud, silk, feathers, milkweed and cattail fluff, deer hair, lichen, spider silk, moss, twigs, leaves, petioles, roots, stones, flowers, seeds, ferns—each is carefully selected for unique nest-building tasks. For example, the great crested flycatcher often adds a piece of shed snakeskin to the nest to help deter predators or other intruders. Many species like hummingbirds use spider webs in their nests to make them pliable enough to expand as the nestlings grow within. Most birds are opportunistic builders, though, and will gladly integrate other items of similar size and texture into their nests.
Being a bird requires lots of work. Audubon’s unprecedented analysis of 40 years of bird population data reveals alarming declines for many of our most beloved birds. Since 1970, the population of some bird species has nose-dived as much as 80 percent. And so it’s vital to help out a backyard buddy or two as much as possible.
May is the perfect time to supply a safe spot for a nest—and a birdhouse gourd provides an ideal spot. If you are lucky enough to have grown birdhouse gourds in your garden last year, you have a garage full of dried gourds. If not, you can easily purchase an inexpensive one online right HERE. Below are instructions for how to make a simple birdhouse gourd. More projects just like this one can be found in my newly-released book. Get your hands on a copy right HERE.
THE BIRDHOUSE GOURD
Step 1. Gather all materials outside and lay down several layers of newspaper as a work surface. Put on a dust mask. Use warm water and a wire brush or steel wool to remove any surface mold. Be gentle but firm. Clean off any residue with a moist paper towel. Air-dry overnight.
Step 2. Fold each sandpaper sheet into quarters. Use progressively finer grit sandpaper to get a smooth finish—coarse, then medium, then fine grit. Don’t attempt to remove every spot, just sand until the gourd surface is smooth.
Step 3. The size of the entrance will determine the inhabitant, so first determine the common birds in your backyard, and then consider potential tenants. Do some research on what size entrance hole your potential new neighbor would require. Wearing protective goggles, carefully carve a hole into the main cavity (slightly above the center of the gourd) with a drill and expansion bit. Position the entrance hole high enough to allow space for a roomy nest. And remember this: birds do not care if holes are perfectly round. They don’t.
Step 4. Remove the dried interior fiber and most of the seeds from the gourd, but be sure to leave a few seeds inside to attract potential boarders. Save extras in a labeled envelope for spring planting.
Step 5. Smooth out the rough edges of the entrance hole with coarse, medium, and then fine grit sandpaper.
Step 6. To reduce the risk of late-season mold, drill three ¼ inch drainage holes in the bottom of the gourd. Also, drill two ¼ inch holes on opposite sides near the gourd’s top for hanging.
Step 7. Buff the gourd with an old wool sweater scrap.
Step 8. If desired, apply red or brown shoe polish with a cotton ball. For a burnished appearance, rub wood preserver or beeswax onto the gourd with an old rag. Work in a circular motion.
Step 9. Let the gourd dry for several hours and buff it lightly with a dry rag.
Step 10. If desired, apply polyurethane to preserve the gourd. Use a paintbrush to apply an even coat. Let dry overnight.
Step 11. Feed cord or twine through the top holes—an old coat hanger helps push flexible cord through. Tie the ends of the cord together.
Step 12. In early April, hang your gourd home for backyard friends.
If you are lucky to see some birdhouse activity this spring or summer, watch from afar until several days after nest building concludes. To avoid nest abandonment, make a very brief nest inspection. Wait for the adults to leave, quietly approach the birdhouse, and take a peek inside. Make a quick observation of how many eggs or young are visible. Inspect the nest weekly to observe any changes, but do not go near the nest if the young are older. They may prematurely leap out of the nest and not return. In late fall, remove the existing nesting material and place the birdhouse in a safe place to dry for the winter. The gourd may require sprucing up after a few seasons—sanding, dying and polishing—but it should last for several years.
Cavity-nesting birds come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from piliated woodpeckers and hooded mergansers to pygmy nuthatches, so it makes sense that different entrance hole diameters accommodate different bird species. Just a fraction of an inch smaller or larger invites unwanted guests inside like house sparrows or European starlings—both are aggressive exotic species that often outcompete native species.
As well, different habitats attract different bird species. For instance, since bluebirds prefer open field-like habitats, a “bluebird” house placed in a heavily wooded area is more likely to be used by a chickadee, titmouse. or flying squirrel. And any birdhouse mounted on a building will most likely be occupied by a house sparrow.
Do some research, observe the bird you’d like to attract and try to recreate the environment. Place your birdhouse in the correct habitat for the species you’d like to benefit. Like a prime piece of real estate, the success of your birdhouse depends upon the planning and thought you put into it.
A simple gift like a birdhouse gourd provides a silent strength to both the recipient and the gift-giver. You will soon find yourself looking for other ways to give. Do this: liberate your manicured living space—reduce the size of your lawn, leave some wild, untamed areas for shelter, plant native species, offer fresh water and nesting materials. “Give” to a small critter or two. Close the ecological gap between supply and demand. Your everyday careful, deliberate actions, no matter how small, will make a difference.
Give creatively. Do more with less. Whatever your circumstances, time, or skills, you can have a positive influence on the world around you. The trick is to know what you can do and be willing to do it. Everyone has something to offer.
And, speaking of offers…. I have something to offer YOU. Don’t miss out on your chance to win a FREE copy of Ashley English’s newly-released “Handmade Gatherings”–check out my superamazing offer right HERE.