Decorative birdhouses look cute in your garden, but if you really want birds to settle in, you may have to customize them.

Being a good landlord for our feathered friends means learning what kind of houses they need.

Many birds once nested in the hollows of dead trees, but those spots are becoming harder to find as land is cleared to make way for new construction, so, more and more, birds depend on us for a nesting spot.

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Some birds have long looked to people for a place to roost.

Native Americans hung gourds and European colonists made birdhouses for the Eastern species of purple martins, the largest swallows in North America. The prevalence of these ready-made houses, coupled with the decline of natural spots to nest, actually changed the behavior of the species.

Purple martins like to nest in colonies and prefer multi-unit houses (think tiny apartments) made of wood or aluminum, said Krista Adams, a Louisiana Master Naturalist and purple martin ambassador. They also like multiple gourds hung together.

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“Subsequent generations of the birds will return to the place they found nesting over the years,” she said.

More than two dozen other North American birds will nest in birdhouses, and each of those species — including bluebirds, robins, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, brown creepers, wrens, tree swallows, barn swallows, phoebes, flycatchers, woodpeckers and owls — has certain requirements for their abodes, including preferred heights and locations.

For example, if you put up a birdhouse near a field, park, cemetery or golf course, you have a good chance of attracting a pair of bluebirds. They like their homes to be 3 to 5 feet high, and the diameter of the hole should be small enough to keep starlings, house sparrows and other predators from invading.

To help determine the best birdhouse for different birds, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has detailed information at nestwatch.org. The interactive tool can help determine which birds are likely to nest in your region and habitat. A free PDF of custom birdhouse plans you can build also is available.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also offers tips on birdhouses and recommended ways to keep out predators.

Jane Patterson, president of the Baton Rouge Audubon Society, said whatever house you provide, most long-distance birds who are migrating are only going to have one nest per season.

“Most of them are short-term renters,” she said, adding that birds don’t stay in nests any longer than necessary.

“You’ve heard the term sitting ducks? All birds want to raise their babies and get them out of the nest as soon as possible for safety,” she said.

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There are still plenty of birds that won’t use nest boxes, Patterson said, including cardinals, doves and orioles. A male Carolina wren will make multiple nests in a day at sites that may include a sock on a clothesline or a nook in your garage. The female wren then picks the best site, and together they work to complete the nest.

Year-round birds will have more than one brood in a year, she said, noting mourning doves have been documented to have up to six broods in one year.

If providing a birdhouse or nest box is a bit too ambitious but you’d still like to be hospitable, Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine offers a few ways to help:

  • Keep your cat inside (and ask your neighbors to do the same). Cats take a huge toll on songbirds, and low-nesting bird species are especially vulnerable.
  • Hold off trimming hedges and shrubs. Lots of birds use small hedges and shrubs for nesting.
  • Don’t mow meadows or brushy areas between late April and mid-August to allow field sparrows, prairie warblers, meadowlarks and other birds to nest in peace.
  • If you find a nest, stay away from it. People leave scent trails for raccoons, opossums, fox or other predators to find vulnerable nests.
  • Provide clean water for birds to drink and bathe in all year long. Your birdbath may be the first place a parent bird takes its offspring.

Resources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nest Watch; “The Original Birdhouse Book” from Birdwatcher’s Digest; Purple Martin Conservation Association; Louisiana Bluebird Society


This column provided by Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater Baton Rouge, which seeks to advance awareness, understanding and stewardship of the natural environment. For more information, email info@lmngbr.org.