Birdhouses are common decorations throughout the United States. They come in many shapes, styles, and sizes, from hanging gourds to copper-roofed gazebos. You may wonder what are birds looking for, and how do birds find birdhouses?
While some large birds such as ducks or owls will use man-made houses, in this article we will focus on songbirds. You’ll learn how birds search for and find birdhouses, their favorite types of houses, and their seasonal preferences for nesting.
- Most birdhouse-using birds are cavity nesters. These are the species that nest in tree holes in the wild.
- Make your birdhouse setup hospitable to house-hunting birds by making sure it’s the right size, high enough off the ground, with a small entrance hole and no perch. These specs will help protect against predators.
- Birds nest in the spring, and start searching for their perfect spot early. Get your setup ready, or clean out your existing birdhouse, in late winter.
How Do Birds Find BirdHouses?
Birds usually locate potential nest areas by sight. While on the move looking for food and moving through their environment, they are always keeping an eye out for potential spots. Late winter and early spring is when the search really kicks into high gear. Birds will search through their territory looking for good spots, and then spend some time investigating any contenders.
Birds that are attracted to human-made birdhouses are called cavity-nesters. In the wild, they look for holes in tree trunks or extremely dense snags. It is likely the most attractive thing about a birdhouse is simply the hole. Cavity nesting birds are used to scouting around for holes of a certain size.
What time of Year Do Birds Use Birdhouses?
In North America, the songbirds that use birdhouses mate and nest in the spring. Depending on your geographic area, breeding season can be as short as six to eight weeks, or as long as four months.
It’s advisable to prepare ahead of time for the breeding season so your setup is ready for the new family to move in. At the very latest, finish setting up your bird house in midwinter.
Why so early?
For one, setting it up early lets you troubleshoot problems like height, location, and predation risk. You may even set it up, look out your window, and realize you’d rather move it to a spot where you have a better view! This way you have a few weeks to tweak and move things while not disturbing any nesting birds.
Second, visitors arrive earlier than you might expect. Some species of birds arrive back from their migration in early spring or even late winter, and start looking around right away. I’ve seen bluebirds, a popular bird to attract with birdhouses, checking out potential spots in late February!
What do Birds Look For in a Birdhouse?
Songbirds have to consider safety and comfort when choosing a birdhouse. While each species can have slightly different criteria, here are some of the main categories they are looking at.
It can be hard to regulate temperature inside a small box. A birdhouse that is out in exposed sun all day long might get too hot for some species. Many songbirds appreciate a house that is shaded for at least part of the day, especially afternoons. Facing the opening hole north or east are also helpful when it comes to sun and wind exposure. Keeping mother bird, the eggs and young chicks from overheating is important.
Birds like to keep things as private as possible while nesting. They don’t want to draw attention to their nests location. A birdhouse right next to a water feature or bird feeder probably will be overlooked because the location is too busy. Some species are okay with the birdhouse being out in the open, while others will look for something with more branches and foliage surrounding it.
Cozy Size, and Perch-Free
Birds will look for a cavity size that can fit them and their nest, but without much extra space. For most songbirds, 5 square inches is adequate.
Another important factor is the opening size. Make sure the hole isn’t too large –1 ½ inch will do for most songbirds. The larger the hole, the more easily a predator can get inside.
Similarly, avoid perches in most cases as they are unnecessary. Cavity nesting birds are able to perch and cling, and won’t have a problem getting into the birdhouse opening without a perch. All a perch does is provide predators and larger, problematic birds easier access.
Birds will almost always pick natural over ornate. Natural finish woods like cedar and redwood look great as they weather and don’t need much maintenance. The super fancy models that look like miniature mansions or beach houses are cute…but they are often more for decoration than actually having the right combination of specs for a safe birdhouse.
One of the most important things in placing your birdhouse in your yard is ensuring it’s at the right height. Make sure it’s at least 5 feet off the ground. Not many songbirds want to nest close to the ground, as it increases the chances their nest will be found by predators like squirrels, cats, rats or snakes.
At the bottom of this page on Cornell’s Nestwatch site, you can find the specifications that each common birdhouse-using species is looking for. It’s a good resource if you are trying to attract a specific bird. However putting up a nice, standard birdhouse is likely to get noticed by at least a few species.
Should You Clean Out Birdhouses?
Cleaning out birdhouses is optional, since used nests usually accumulate in cavities in the wild. However, used nests can attract mold, mildew, and take up valuable space for a mother bird and her chicks.
Cavity-nesting songbirds that find a suitable spot will sometimes spend time and effort removing old nesting materials before building their new nest. However this takes time and energy, and when it comes to birdhouses they may just avoid using the box rather than clean it out themselves.
Save prospective inhabitants time by removing old nests in advance.
If you have made the leap and invested in a solid nesting box, we recommend cleaning out leftover nesting materials at the end of the breeding season. Check it at the beginning of the next breeding season to make sure it’s clean as well.
At the end of the season, dump out anything left in the nest box. Grab a scrub brush and scrub the inside with a very mild bleach solution. Allow to dry completely before hanging it back up.
Birds prefer weathered birdhouses, so don’t worry about leaving the house outside during the off-season. Winter snow, rains, and wind will age the house, help it blend into the environment, and eventually make it more attractive to potential inhabitants.
If you’re worried about the birds finding enough nesting materials to craft their nests, don’t worry. Birds are resourceful and good at finding a range of supplies.
You can help by leaving grass and weed clippings out. Some pet owners even set out small baskets of shedded dog or cat hair during peak nest-building season!
Do birds come back to the same place every year?
It depends on the species of songbird.
Purple Martins are a swallow that returns to the same location every year. Unlike many other cavity nesters, they prefer to nest in apartment-style birdhouses. They’re one species of bird on the East coast of the United States that nests almost entirely in human-provided birdhouses.
If the bird is aware of a safe nesting area with enough food and water to feed chicks, they may consider returning.
Birds reference a variety of factors when selecting where to live. Optimize your birdhouse setup by keeping it shaded, away from predators, and close to water and food sources.
It may take a few months in the spring for birds to catch on to your nest box, but if you persevere, you’re likely to have a brood of chicks living in your backyard in no time!
Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys feeding, studying, and taking photos of wild birds and hummingbirds. She once worked as the hummingbird department manager at a Wild Birds Unlimited store.