Birdhouses seem to tap into the human love of all things miniature. That’s my theory, anyway, for why they never seem to go out of style in the garden.

If you’re thinking about adding a birdhouse to your own domestic landscape this spring, the first thing to consider is its main purpose. Will your birdhouse be a decorative object, primarily, or a house for birds?

Bird Houses for the Birds

If you want birds to actually nest in the birdhouse you’re setting out in the garden, be aware that a fancy decorative finish is not the best way to go. Birds prefer something more subdued, in dull colours or natural finishes, so they’ll blend in and feel safe.

Eastern Bluebird - US Fish & WildlifeWe build boxes for our visiting Eastern Bluebirds out of rough cedar, which is inexpensive and weather-resistant, and looks good in our rural setting as it weathers naturally to silver-grey.

In a more urban or suburban setting, I’d be inclined to use a smooth-surfaced cedar or pine, and treat the outside with linseed oil to help the wood last longer.

An opaque water-based non-toxic stain would be another option, if having a certain colour is important. Some stains will closely mimic the look of natural wood, or you can go with a coloured stain — a sage green, for example, would blend in well with surrounding shrubs and trees.

By the way, birds are a bit fussy about the size and shape of birdhouse they prefer, how large the hole should be, and where it’s located. It helps to know what species of bird you want to attract, and get the specs right. A birdhouse is quite an easy DIY project for a beginner woodworker, using one of the free birdhouse building plans that are easy to come by online or through a local birdwatchers’ club. (If you’re lucky enough to live in Pennsylvania, for example, the state game commission offers kits for building Bluebird boxes.)

We soon learned that a Bluebird nesting box is also very attractive to Tree Swallows, which are a more assertive bird and arrive in our area a good week earlier in the season than their shy blue-feathered buddies.

To save nesting space for the Bluebirds (which are more at risk and can use a little human help), we installed a little sliding door on our bird boxes. The door stays firmly closed until the Swallows have settled in, then we open it to give access to the Bluebirds as soon as they arrive back from their winter vacation in the south. It doesn’t always work as planned — about 30% of the time, the Swallows see the open door and come back around — but so far it’s the best we’ve come up with. And any kind of insect-eating bird is a pleasant addition to our property!

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