- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Anne Marie Pierce of Wheaton likes to watch birds on her front porch with

Jasper, her Yorkshire terrier.

Although many dogs might like to eat the winged creatures for lunch, she has trained her four-legged friend to sit silently and enjoy their presence. She has two birdhouses displayed in her yard and will be adding two more in coming weeks.

“In the springtime, the birds make a big game of going in and out of the birdhouses to see who is going to live there,” Ms. Pierce says. “It’s the best entertainment going … especially in the summer. The interplay with the birds is so cool. You see the baby birds peep out. The parents come along and feed them.”

Although not all birds make their homes in man-made shelters, many of the creatures use birdhouses to rest their feathers. Roosting boxes keep birds warm in the winter, and nesting boxes keep them cool in the summer. However, bird-lovers should know a thing or two about the structures before displaying them in their yards.

Despite the wide variety of birdhouses available, the price paid for a box is not going to influence the bird’s decision to make its home there, says Mark Ludlow, owner of For the Wild Birds in McLean.

“We sell architectural birdhouses for more than $700 that look like Greek or Gothic Revival architecture,” he says. “They don’t attract birds more than a $20 birdhouse, but they look beautiful. … The birds don’t care. They don’t care what color it is. They want the right hole and cavity size. Some birds test the humidity inside the box.”

In fact, those people who want to make birdhouses from natural materials may visit Green Spring Gardens Park in Alexandria Saturday or March 20 for lessons on how to build with wattle and daub, which are plants and clay. The fee is $15 per project. Reservations are required. The program, “Build a Better Bird House,” is for children ages 5 through 12 and accompanying adults.

“It’s not like a polished birdhouse you can buy in the store,” says Cindy Gimble, coordinator of children’s programs at the park. “You don’t have to have fancy stuff or buy a house to invite wildlife into your garden.”

Natural wooden boxes are most similar to what birds find in the wild, says Debi Klein, owner of Backyard Naturalist in Olney. She says the boxes also need to open in an inconspicuous way so they can be cleaned at the end of each season.

“If it’s painted, make sure it’s not painted on the inside,” she says. “It can be decorated, but make sure it’s functional.”

Roosting boxes, which shouldn’t be confused with bird feeders, should have a hole at the bottom because heat rises, she says. The houses usually contain staggered perches so the birds don’t defecate on one another. Different species of birds can use the same roosting box.

However, nesting boxes, which are used in the spring and summer to raise babies, are only used by one couple a season. The hole size of the nesting boxes will influence whether a bird will make its home there, Ms. Klein says. If it’s too small, they won’t be able to enter; if it’s too large, they might get eaten by predators.

The average Metro-area back yard attracts birds such as house wrens, Carolina wrens, nuthatches, chickadees and tufted titmice, which need an entrance hole about 11/4 inches in diameter.

“People want houses for cardinals, blue jays and robins,” Ms. Klein says. “They nest in bushes, trees and thickets. They will not nest in a box.”

Making sure the hole is near the top of the nesting box also is important, she adds. The lower the hole, the easier it is for predators such as squirrels and raccoons to attack the eggs or baby birds.

“You don’t want the babies to fall out of the nest,” she says. “The bird should go in and down to build the nest. There is safety in depth.”

Another reason for small, high holes on nesting boxes is protection against house sparrows, says Tony Bisceglie of Brookeville, who has four nesting boxes on his 2 acres. Because Mr. Bisceglie has bluebird nesting boxes, which require 11/2-inch-diameter holes for the species to enter, human intervention is required to keep out the house sparrows, which also can enter through the same size hole.

House sparrows are destructive to many native birds, including bluebirds, and oftentimes kill them or their young. European starlings also are known to attack bluebirds.

During the spring and summer, Mr. Bisceglie removes the nests of house sparrows from his birdhouses every week. He even displays house sparrow traps, which catch the birds without injuring them.

“Before I was a lawyer, I was a naturalist,” he says. “I did a lot of birding. When I had a piece of property of my own, it made sense to put birdhouses on it. … It was a wonderful experience for my children. They adopted a bird family. They watched the parents take care of their babies up until the time the babies flew away and left. It beats TV.”

Fauzi Emad of Gaithersburg monitors 28 bluebird boxes in his neighborhood, including eight in his yard, all of which he built. As a member of the North American Bluebird Society, which is headquartered in Wilmot, Ohio, he hopes his homes will increase the number of bluebirds in the area, which has decreased because of land development.

Bluebird boxes and houses for other species should be in place by mid-March, when the birds return from their winter migration and are looking for nesting sites. However, boxes also may be put up later in the nesting season.

“It’s a wonderful and rewarding hobby,” Mr. Emad says. “It’s a conservation effort.”

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