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What To Put in a Birdhouse (and What Not To)

Birdhouses are a great way to attract birds to your yard and it can be quite amazing watching them nest and raise their young. When installing one, many people may wonder what to put in a birdhouse. Do you need to add anything extra to it, either to attract the birds or to help them with their nest building? In this article we will take a look at what items you can put in a birdhouse, and if they are a help or a hindrance. 

What to put in a birdhouse

Quick answer is, the best thing you can do for your birds is to not put anything in their birdhouse. Maybe that isn’t the answer you were expecting!

The most common things I see people ask about are offering birdseed or nesting material inside the house. That makes sense and sounds like a way to help the birds, but often that can do more harm than good.

Let’s dive deeper into those two materials and see why it is better to exclude them.

Can you put birdseed in a birdhouse?

Many people think that by putting birdseed in the birdhouse they are going to attract birds to come and nest in it, or that they are helping to feed the family inside. It’s a nice thought with good intentions, however this is often a bad practice.

Let’s look at three reasons why. 

1. Bird seed attracts predators and pests

Flying squirrel investigating my birdhouse | image by BirdFeederHub

Birds aren’t the only critters that like to eat bird seed. Seeds and nuts contain fats and proteins that many animals seek out. This can include squirrels, raccoons, rats and mice.

These creatures can dig around in the bird house, destroying the nest, scare away the mother, potentially introduce fleas and mites, or worse eat bird eggs or young birds (I’m looking at your raccoons).

Thus, if you are putting seed directly into the house or right outside the door of the house, you could be attracting a lot more than just birds. 

2. Seeds can spoil

Let’s say you throw a few seeds in an empty birdhouse to attract some birds. If a bird finds the seed quickly and eats it then no problem. But if the seed sits there for awhile, it can spoil. The oils in seeds go rancid and grow mold. 

It’s true the seeds will be protected from rain, but damp and humid air that is stagnant inside the house can still spoil seeds. You would need to check them frequently and change them out.

Plus if one seed falls out of your dish and then a nest gets build on top of it, that can bring bugs and mold to the nest and the vulnerable babies. 

3. Don’t disturb a nesting family

If you go out to the birdhouse every day to leave seeds for mom, she won’t know you are trying to help her. She will just be scared. She sees you as a huge potential predator that now knows the location of her nest.

Whether she has just started to build, is sitting on eggs or has hatched young, if she gets spooked one too many times she will abandon ship and possibly not come back.

Nesting birds are extremely protective of their space and the last thing you want to do is be the reason she leaves and seeks a safer spot elsewhere. 

Wren with caterpillar (Image:

How to feed and attract nesting birds

Ok so we can see all the things that can go wrong with putting food inside a bird house. What can you do instead?

Create an environment in your yard that will provide food in abundance with these tips: 

  • Hang bird feeders and offer mixed seed. This way if the bird wants seed, it can easily locate it. Just don’t place feeders too close to the birdhouse or the extra bird traffic may disturb the nest. 
  • At your bird feeding station offer some variety such as mealworms, fruits, suet and nuts. 
  • Promote insects. Most nesting mothers prefer insects over seeds, and insects are often the majority of what is fed to their babies, especially small caterpillars. You can help by avoiding pesticides, leaving some “wild spaces” in your yard or adding a variety of native plants that birds love. Some tall grass, weeds, wildflowers, shrubs, undergrowth and leaf litter will bring in more bugs than empty and perfectly manicured lawn. 

Can I Put Nest Materials In A Birdhouse?

We know birds work hard to collect the materials for their nest and spend a lot of time putting them together. The use many objects such as twigs, grasses, moss, plant down, feathers, animal fur, pine needles, leaves, mud and more. 

You may think placing some of these materials in your birdhouse will attract the birds and make life easier for them by giving them a head start. However the truth is, birds are very picky!

Each species has preferences for which materials they like to use. Even if you guess the right material, such as twigs for a wren, if the wren decides it doesn’t like the size and length of the twig, it won’t use it.

So it’s best to leave the decisions to the bird. If a bird that comes to check out your house finds something in there it doesn’t like, it might:

  • decide not to use your house at all
  • spend time and energy removing the material before bringing in it’s own, making more work
  • build on top of your material, losing space inside the house

How to help birds with nesting materials

If you want to feel like you are giving the birds some help with nesting, provide them some choices nearby. Rather than putting materials inside the birdhouse, have them available in your yard. 

A goldfinch looks at some cat hair that was placed on a bird feeder to be used for nesting material
Leaving out clean pet fur is a great way to help nesting birds | image by Liz West via Flickr | CC BY 2.0
  • leave your grass and plant clippings
  • leave piles of pine needles
  • make a twig pile
  • hang a suet cage and fill with cotton fibers or clean pet fur
  • brush your dogs outside and leave the hair
  • create a small depression in the dirt and add water daily for mud
  • don’t remove spider webs around the outside of your house
  • don’t remove plants with downy seeds such as dandelion or cattail 

*please note, even though dryer lint seems like a good nest material, don’t offer it. Lint often contains chemicals and dyes that are toxic to birds. It also crumbles when wet and could cause a nest to fall apart. 

Cleaning your birdhouse

While it is best to leave the birdhouse empty, you do want to make sure you clean it out. The best times are late summer and again in early spring.

This is the best option if you want to leave the house out during the winter for birds to roost in. This will ensure the box is clean for your winter visitors, and then cleaned again before the birds build their nests in the spring. 

But if you only want to bother once a year, late February or early March is the time to get it cleaned before the birds start looking to build a nest.

How do I clean my birdhouse? 

First pull out all that old nesting material. Use a tool or wear gloves. Audubon recommends scrubbing with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Leave out in the sun with the door open to dry and don’t close the door until it’s dried completely. This will help prevent disease or parasites affecting the next set of hatchlings. 


While it’s a nice idea to want to help the birds find your birdhouse, and make their nesting experience easy and successful, it’s best to give them a blank slate. Leave your birdhouses empty and clean. Let them choose their own food and materials, but help them out by providing lots of choices in your yard.