Forward: for those looking to make their own bird houses, or for those who have bird houses in their yard, even decorative ones and that haven’t done much more than slap the bird houses up, please, please do see the bottom of this post. When birds get desperate and use unsuitable bird houses, it may be worse than not having a nesting place. Nestlings can be squished, overheated, sickened, or worse.
Last year, I noticed we had tree swallows hanging around on the power lines and swooping around after insects most of the spring and summer. I wanted to encourage them to stick around. They look cool, sound cool, and eat a lot of irritating insects. (note: instead of plopping all the pictures at one point where I assembled them, I’ll be breaking them up into chunks interspersed with the text. With luck they should be in order as I took them, some are from doing the first box, some from the second and third. Various stages of cutting, practice aligning, pre-drilling, adding screws or nails, etc. are shown.).
As a kid, I had been interested in bluebird boxes and bluebirds for a while, so I remembered swallows often would steal or compete with bluebirds for next boxes… and figured that I would build or buy a box. I ended up keeping that as a ‘back of my mind’ project until late summer when I started getting serious about it. I did a bit of research on box plans and materials, and figured it would be cheaper to buy materials and make it. I got most of the wood I thought I would need, various pieces of #x#s of outdoor treated wood. However, I ended up getting distracted from the project, and we ended up needing the materials for other projects
Early in the spring (late winter really), I ended up buying a box that said it was suitable for swallows, bluebirds, and a few other types of birds. I didn’t think to take my tape measure from my purse and measure it until I got into the parking lot. And then I discovered that (not surprisingly) what may be marketed as appropriate for swallows may not actually be proper, depending on where you live.
In this area, I’ll probably get tree swallows (or house sparrows, or house wrens, which are battles I will have to fight later). They’re the swallows I saw last year, and I have been seeing them back the last week or so. And tree swallows need an interior floor space of five inches by five inches… which is a bit larger in both width and depth than what is often talked about for bluebirds. That little bit amounts to a significant difference in floor space, which can have affect the hatchlings as they grow. So, I returned the bird house.
And then I re-researched plans and materials and actually really checked on online sources for bird houses… Turns out a lot of the boxes out there online are not suitable for the types of swallows I will get here. I found less than three options, and it would be a lot cheaper to make my own. So, I decided I would brave the making my own route. I double checked what materials I would need. Turns out most people avoid the treated material because it’s not been shown to be safe for the little birds to be sitting on it and living in it, and that the materials I purchased ended up being overkill for size anyway. It would have been harder to measure and cut them. Luckily, on my second foray to the hardware and lumber store, there were cedar “1×8” boards which, by actual dimension, were just about as wide as I needed them for every piece. And many people use cedar for bird houses, and it will withstand many seasons of weather.
I managed to make three bird houses using the two boards I purchased. I had to pre-drill the holes for the small screws, because the cedar split easily… I didn’t properly pre-drill the first hole I tried to screw into, but I managed to salvage the piece. I did plan to use caulk to fill the gaps anyway, so it was just one more gap to seal. I also noticed the boards I purchased were pretty to look at, and seemed straight the long ways… but I didn’t look to see if they were also flat. There was a bit of a curve along the 8 (7 1/4ish) inch wide (think like a nearly flat version of celery stalk) but I managed to work with that (and caulk things!).
Ryan showed me how to use tape (he says usually people use masking tape, but all I could find on hand was duct tape) so I could hold pieces against each other to pre-drill holes into edges. I used my hand saw to cut things—yes, this takes A LOT longer than a skill saw or whatever would have taken. I really hate power tools. Although I may have managed in this and a previous project to make a sort of truce with the power drill, I’m not about to use something that has a saw blade and a power source that isn’t powered by muscle.
The boxes are designed to have one side that hinges open along the top edge, those were held in place by nails that acted as pivots. I had to make extra-sure that those nails were lined up so it would swing. If one was farther up, down, or farther in or out, the door wouldn’t swing properly. The bottom of the door is held closed by a nail that slides into and out of a hole drilled at a downward angle from one of the stationary sides into the moving side. Gravity and mild friction hold the nail in place, so all you have to do is gently remove the nail, and you can open the box. It’s called a ‘keeper’ nail.
Being able to open the box is important so you can clean it after the nesting season so parasites and other yuck doesn’t build up and get the birds sick. It’s important too, so I can keep an eye on what may be going on in the nest. As mentioned above, there are a few battles I may face with this nesting box. Predators are one, so when I put the box outside today, I tried to put it where it will be hard for things to jump or climb to the box. I may upgrade to a different support system if this doesn’t work well enough.
I mis-planned the width needed for the widest piece, the roof, and was about ¾ inch short of the intended width because the ‘nominal’ and ‘actual’ measurements were off a little more than I thought I had measured at the store. That meant when I made the roof, rain falling at an angle had a better chance to fall in the top-side ventilation holes. So, I improvised with scraps left from cutting the other pieces, and braced small pieces to extend the overhang on the sides of the roof.
I made the first one (which I actually put outside today) first. Then when I made it through without completely screwing things up, I measured out the pieces for the next two boxes, cut them out, and worked my way through making them. After the first was assembled, I caulked the gaps. Then after the last two were assembled, I caulked them as well as re-did a bit on the first one. I of course, used my trusty 2×2 ‘caulk gun substitute’ and a drill bit to get the caulk out of the caulk tube I keep using for my projects… we have about 3 caulk guns but we can never find them when we need them. I’ve used the 2×2 stuffed in like a push-pop before, it works pretty well and I can really get body weight behind it when there’s a clog if I brace the wood on the floor and lean down on the caulk tube. Definitely not professional technique but I’m more unconventional when it comes to caulk.
After the research on battling house wrens, I decided to wait to put the boxes until I saw the swallows had arrived back. I may have put it up a little early, as I don’t think I’ve seen them more than a week. If I remember the resources correctly, it was suggested to actually wait maybe two weeks, but since there are so many bird houses in my close neighbor’s yard which are vastly too small that are up year round, I wanted to get a properly sized bird house up now. I also added a T-shaped perch for the swallows on the top at the last minute this morning. I hope I have the perch dimensions within what a swallow can use, as I just used whatever was on hand while I was assembling the support 2×4 and blocks to keep the sled in place. I used a plastic saucer sled for small kids as a baffle to make it harder for predators to get to the nest box.
Speaking of that, I basically cut a hole in the center of the sled that is shaped like the 2×4. I screwed scrap pieces of 2×4 on the support 2×4 just below where I want the sled to sit, then slid the sled on, and placed two more pieces of scrap 2×4 above it. That keeps it from sliding down or blowing up the main 2×4. The bird house is wired to the 2×4 to hold it on. I drilled matching holes through the 2×4 and through the back of the bird house before assembling anything. I made two horizontal pairs of holes into the bird house back, poked the ends of a piece of wire through the upper holes (one end through each hole), and did the same with a second wire through the lower pair of holes. I checked that the holes I drilled lined up using the wire to temporarily attach the house. Since they lined up, I took the bird house and wires off the 2×4 again. Then I assembled the 2×4 and sled contraption, screwed that to the fence post, and then I climbed a ladder with the bird house. Since it already had the wires poked through, all I had to do was align and insert the wires into the 2×4 again, pull them tight, and twist the top and bottom pairs to hold the bird house on the 2×4.
When it comes to placing, I admit that anywhere on our property is going to be ‘at risk’ to house wren activity. Our close neighbor, as mentioned, has a bunch of smaller bird houses out, which are more bluebird sized at best than swallow sized. Also, most of last summer there was at least one house wren generally hanging out in their yard singing and scolding. I am just hoping that since they have more shrubs in their yard, and a lot of bird houses, he and his family and babies will hang out more over there.
I have mentally planned to keep a serious eye on this box (as I wrote the initial draft, I was in the bedroom and watching it out the window as I typed, haha). The suggestions for dealing with house wren competition are various, from give up and take the nest box down so you don’t lure any swallows to be nesting where their babies and eggs may be pecked to death by the wrens, to trying to keep distracting the wrens with decoy houses keeping wrens busy claiming, to monitoring boxes and removing the initial twigs placed by a wren to claim the house, to wren baffles placed over the door to your swallow house at strategic times.
I plan to monitor and hope. As wrens are native therefore protected legally and by my fondness for just about any bird, I am limited in what I can do to encourage them to leave the swallows I hope will nest there in peace. I’m going to remove any twigs placed by wrens to claim the box, but if I am lazy or the wren is quick and builds the nest to a point of being considered active, I’ll have to just give up and let them nest, or wait three weeks if they don’t advance the nest and then take it out as an inactive nest, and probably take the box down. If I attract swallows, I will monitor their nesting progress, and as soon as I see the first egg has been laid, I will add an entrance wren baffle thingy. I have to wait until they lay the first egg so they have some serious commitment to the nest box, but not until they start incubation. They lay an egg a day (ish), and so until they have laid all the eggs and start incubating, the eggs haven’t really started developing and if the parents take a while to figure out getting back in, it won’t harm the egg before incubation begins but it might cause the eggs to get messed up if I wait. Waiting longer also risks the eggs in the box getting pecked and killed by wrens.
I have done my best to put the box where I could attach its post to the fence, where I think the adapted sled-turned-predator-baffle will do its best to make it harder for snakes to climb the 2×4 holding up the box, and to make it harder for squirrels, raccoons, and whatever to jump up to the box. I think maybe an agile cat could jump the barrier, but this is what I can do, so I will just have to hope. I have the box as far as I can get it from the shrubby yard of my neighbors and still attach it where I can monitor it, but honestly, wrens may travel a long way from shrubs so nowhere is perfect on our yard. I am lucky, I don’t remember ever hearing or seeing a house sparrow in the neighborhood, which is amazing and happy. House sparrows (sometimes called English Sparrows) are invasive, they are from Europe, and will harm swallows and bluebirds in their nests. If I was hardened and more able, if I had problems with them, and if I understand things correctly, I might be able to trap and kill them because they are not native and not protected by certain legislation. But I’m just not that ruthless… I always say to them when I see them in bigger cities ‘I wish you weren’t here, and I hope you don’t have any babies’ It’s not their fault some humans did stupid things and now they are causing problems for many naive species, but I also don’t want them to breed! I just hope I won’t have problems with them.
So, I think that’s long enough about my bird house—tell a lie, I still have to tell y’all what I hope to do with the other two. I am thinking I’ll check social media for a bird group, and ask if anyone who has prime swallow real estate wants some—nice open big fields with less chance of being endangered by competitive species and nice yummy insects to snag on the fly.
Here are the websites and pages I noodled over repetitively for information from plans to make the houses to placement to materials to plans on how to handle other birds.
The first two listed are where I really got a LOT of info, by following links to various aspects of bird behavior, nest placement…It was fun to really get my nerd on, but sad in a way because our yard isn’t prime real estate for tree swallows yet they are here, so I hope I can help a pair successfully raise babies this year!
sialis.org/tres.htm is a site more for bluebirds but has resources about tree swallows and other birds that may compete for bluebird nestboxes.
http://www.treeswallowprojects.com is obviously devoted to tree swallows
http://golondrinas.cornll.edu/default.html is a resource for people who want to really get into helping the study and helping of tree swallows. It’s where I got the design for the boxes I built, under the “Data Collection & Protocol” section, under Nest Box Design.
HERE IT IS: the end of the blog, where I asked people to look if they had bird houses and needed information.
Firstly, if your bird houses are for decoration only, maybe take the floors out or plug the entrance and paint it black to look like an entrance but prevent birds from nesting in the box. That way you don’t invite birds to live in unmanaged homes. Even if the birds breeding in those boxes are native and desirable, leaving bird houses up but un-maintained can let them get yucky between uses. Do you want to sleep in a hotel or resort that never cleans the rooms? Ew!
If you want to actually have birds nesting in the boxes /houses, do some research on what your location will attract, what will they need for size and placement, what materials will suit your location, and what challenges your hoped occupants will face. That way you don’t do what I did—spend money on something and then find out it won’t work well.
Consider reading from the above websites, as well as specifically:
sialis.org/wrens.htm and wwwtreeswallowprojects.com/wrendam.html –a lot about house wren damage and how to reduce it (and why you might want to take action).
sialis.org/neglect.htm talks about the problems that bird houses/next boxes just left up and left to do their own thing may bring about in terms of breeding other species like house sparrows. House sparrows really are a problem, they will literally kill adult swallows or bluebirds in the nest box, or young. Leaving up boxes in areas where they will face high amounts of house sparrows entices birds into very unsafe circumstances…
I hope to keep everyone posted on any activity of interest that happens with the nest box. So far I haven’t noticed anyone investigating it, but when I put it up this afternoon the swallows had already dispersed for the day. With luck, they’ll notice and claim it soon.
p.s. You can get nest boxes for all sorts of birds! I saw some plans or for sale for everything from chick-a-dees to various owls to ducks. Robins nest on platforms, and some swallows nest in cups against a vertical surface… its all about habitat on what you could attract. It’s wild out there!