By Sean Conway
Many migratory birds, including the Eastern bluebird pictured here, look to nest in birdhouses built to their precise specifications
The first real sign of spring arrived in my garden, and what a welcome sound it was. Yes, you read that correctly; it was a sound.
The first group of red-winged blackbirds arrived in the marsh at the edge of my property, perched themselves in the tree tops and began singing in the afternoon sun. This annual event always signals the arrival of spring, as far as I'm concerned.
Red-winged blackbirds are one of the first of the spring migrating birds to return to their northern breeding grounds after wintering in southern states. Like "snowbirds" of the human persuasion, red-winged blackbirds didn't find southern locales much of a respite this past winter, what with heavy snowstorms and unusually long periods of below-freezing temperatures.
Now that the sun is climbing higher in the sky and daylight is increasing to the point of being noticeable, other birds will soon start arriving in northern gardens. Before they do, there are a few preparations you can make to encourage them to stay. This advice applies equally to Southern bird lovers, as members of many migratory species elect to stay put in Florida, the Gulf Coast and the Southwest.
Spring is the breeding season for all migrating birds and, like all parents planning families, they will be looking for a secure home to raise their broods, and birdhouses are just what many birds will be looking for. Being a good landlord means doing some spring cleaning prior to your tenants moving in. If you have existing birdhouses that have been up since last year, be sure to take them down and clean them properly.
Remove last season's nesting material from the houses, but use caution. Many birdhouses become winter homes for rodents. Bang on the side of the house a few times to encourage any four-footed residents that the winter rental season is over!
Once your birdhouse is emptied, assess it for any needed repairs. Make sure the house has drainage holes in the bottom, and ventilation of some sort. If there aren't any drainage holes, add some. Birds don't like damp, musty, waterlogged homes any more than we do.
I clean out the inside of my boxes with a wire brush and, as an added step, wash them with a mild solution of Clorox and water, then thoroughly dry them in the sun before putting them back up.
If squirrels have chewed entrance holes, I fit the box with a new front piece drilled with the appropriately sized hole.
Each species of cavity nesting bird has a different preference for nesting hole size. Chickadees for example prefer a 1 1/8-inch entrance hole to their houses, while Redheaded Woodpeckers prefer a 2-inch hole.
In addition to the size of the entrance hole, birds also have preferences for the dimensions of the house itself. Eastern Bluebirds are a perfect example. These beautiful little birds readily nest in birdhouses, but they are selective about the ones they choose. They prefer the floor of the house to be 5 inches by 5 inches and the height of the house to be 8 to 12 inches, and to be placed 4 to 6 feet off the ground.
Thanks in part to the number of bird lovers paying attention to their housing needs, these colorful birds are making a comeback after years of decline in the first half of the 20th century.
A complete listing of birdhouse dimensions and information about species of birds that will nest in birdhouses can be found on the
I haven't put my snow shovel away just yet, but the first sounds of spring are reminding me it won't be long before I can.
Sean Conway's book is "Sean Conway's Cultivating Life: 125 Projects for Backyard Living" (Artisan Books, 2009), describes 125 projects for backyard living.
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Copyright ©, Cultivating Life by Sean Conway