How to Attract Birds
To Your Nest

Cardinals, doves, orioles, and other determinedly wild birds won't nest in your boxes, no matter what you do. You can still help them by considering their food and shelter requirements in your landscape plans. You can also hang out a wire cage full of nesting materials (fiber scraps, twigs, twine already cut to the right length, wool, or feathers) in the spring. Those that visit your feeders and baths may stay and nest in nearby trees if you make them feel welcome.

More than two dozen North American birds will nest in bird houses if you place the right kind of house in the right environment for them. The following descriptions will help you determine which birds might visit your neighborhood and become your guests.


If you put up a bluebird house near an old field, orchard, park, cemetery, or golf course, you'll have a good chance of attracting a pair of bluebirds. They prefer nest boxes on a tree stump or wooden fence post between three and five feet high. Bluebirds also nest in abandoned woodpecker nest holes. The most important measurement is the hole diameter. An inch and a half is small enough to deter starlings. Starlings and house sparrows have been known to kill baby bluebirds as well as adults sitting on the nest.

Bluebirds have problems with other animals too. The easiest way to discourage predatory cats, snakes, raccoons, and chipmunks is to mount the house on a metal pole, or use a metal predator guard on a wood post.


Robins are our largest thrushes. They prefer to build their nest in the crotch of a tree. If you don't have an appropriate tree, you can offer a nesting platform. Pick a spot six feet or higher up on a shaded tree trunk or under the overhang of a shed or porch. Creating a "mud puddle" nearby offers further excitement, as robins use mud to line their nests.

Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Titmice

Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches share the same food, feeders, and habitats. If you put a properly designed nest box in a wooded yard, at least one pair is sure to check it out.

Put chickadee houses at eye level. Hang them from limbs or secure them to tree trunks. The entrance hole should be 1-1/8" to attract chickadees yet exclude house sparrows.

Anchor houses for hatches on tree trunks five to six feet off the ground.

You can encourage these birds to stay in your yard by continuing to fill your suet and peanut feeders through the summer.

Brown Creepers and Prothonotary Warblers

Look for brown creepers to nest behind the curved bark of tree trunks. In heavily wooded yards, slab bark houses will appeal to creepers. Prothonotary warblers also prefer slab bark houses, but theirs must be placed over water.


Wrens don't seem to be very picky about where they nest. Try nest boxes with a 1" x 2" horizontal slot (1-1/2" x 2-1/2" for the larger Carolina wrens) instead of a circle. These are easier for the wrens to use.

Wrens are notorious for filling up any conceivable nest cavity with twigs, regardless of whether they use the nest. Since male house wrens build several nests for the female to choose from, hang several nest boxes at eye level on partly sunlit tree limbs. Wrens are sociable and will accept nest boxes quite close to your house.

Tree and Violet-green Swallows

Tree swallows prefer nest boxes attached to dead trees. Space the boxes about seven feet apart for these white-bellied birds with iridescent blue-green backs and wings. The ideal setting for these insect-eaters is on the edge of a field near a lake, pond, or river.

Violet-green swallows nest in forested mountains of the west; boxes placed on large trees in a semi-open woodland will attract them.

Barn Swallows and Phoebes

If you have the right habitat, barn swallows and phoebes are easy to attract. It's their nesting behavior, not their plumage or song, that catches your attention. These birds tend to nest where you'd rather not have them: on a ledge right over your front door. To avoid a mess by your door, offer the birds a nesting shelf nearby where you'd rather have them.

Purple Martins

Many people want martins because, it's been said, these birds "can eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day." While it's true that they eat flying insects, don't expect purple martins to wipe out your mosquitoes. Martins actually prefer dragonflies, insects which prey on mosquito larvae.

Mosquitoes are most active after sunset. If you want to rid your yard of mosquitoes, put up a bat roosting box. One bat can eat thousands of mosquitoes a night.

But don't cross martins off your prospective tenant list because they don't live up to their "bug zapping" reputation. If you need a reason for attracting them, these gregarious swallows put on a show that's better than any television soap opera.

You have the best chance of attracting martins if you put a house on the edge of a pond or river, surrounded by a field or lawn. Martins need a radius of about 40 feet of unobstructed flying space around their houses. A convenient wire nearby gives them a place to perch in sociable groups.

Martins nest in groups, so you'll need a house with a minimum of four large rooms -- 6 or more inches on all sides, with a 2-1/2 inch entrance hole about an inch and a half above the floor.

Ventilation and drainage are critical factors in martin house design. Porches, railings, porch dividers and supplemental roof perches, like a TV antenna, will make any house more appealing.

Gourds may also be made into houses by making an entrance hole and providing drainage. If you use gourds, it's not necessary to add railings and perches. Adult martins will perch on the wire used to hang the houses.

Before you decide on a house, take the time to think about what kind of pole you're going to put it on. Martins will occupy a house that's between ten and twenty feet off the ground. Some poles are less cumbersome than others.

Gourd houses are the easiest to set up. You can string them:

from a wire between two poles

from a sectional aluminum pole

on pulleys mounted to cross-bar high up on a pole.

Light-weight aluminum houses can be mounted on telescoping poles, providing easy access for maintenance and inspection. Because of their weight (well over 30 pounds), wood houses cannot be mounted on easy-access telescoping poles. You'll have to use a sturdy metal or wood pole attached to a pivot post. The problem with this "lowering" technique is that you can't tilt the house without damaging the nests inside. If you put your house on a shorter, fixed pole, ten to twelve feet high, you can use a ladder to inspect and maintain it.


The great crested flycatcher and its western cousin, the ash-throated flycatcher, are common in wooded suburbs. Their natural nesting sites are abandoned woodpecker holes.

These flycatchers may nest in a bird house if it's placed about ten feet up in a tree in an orchard or at the edge of a field or stream.


You can attract all the woodpeckers with a suet feeder, but only the flicker and the red-bellied are likely to use a bird house. They prefer a box with roughened interior and a floor covered with a two-inch layer of wood chips or coarse sawdust. Flickers are especially attracted to nest boxes filled with sawdust, which they "excavate" to suit themselves.

For best results, place the box high up on a tree trunk exposed to direct sunlight.


Most owls seldom build their own nests. Great horned and long-eared owls prefer abandoned crow and hawk nests. Other owls (barred, barn, saw-whet, boreal and screech) nest in tree cavities and bird houses.

Barn owls are best known for selecting nesting sites near farms. Where trees are sparse, these birds will nest in church steeples, silos, and barns. If you live near a farm or a golf course, try fastening a nest box about 15 feet up on a tree trunk.

Screech owls prefer abandoned woodpecker holes at the edge of a field or neglected orchard. They will readily take to a boxes lined with an inch or two of wood shavings. If you clean the box out in late spring after the young owls have fledged, you may attract a second tenant--a kestrel. Trees isolated from larger tracts of woods have less chance of squirrels taking over the box.


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