Swallows and chickadees, nuthatches and creepers, thrushes, warblers, sparrows and wrens. Many kinds of songbirds make the Puget Sound region at least a seasonal home. Their calls capture our attention the most in spring, the height of the mating and nesting season.
If you would like to observe these birds closely, here’s an easy, family woodworking project that can be completed on a winter weekend.
Build a cozy songbird nest box, hang it outside and watch fledglings emerge from their cozy abode next season.
With a minimum of carpentry skill, it’s a cinch to make one from a single 1-inch by 6-inch board.
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You’ll need a few tools, a 6-foot length of rough-cut board, screws and/or nails and some wire.
Karen Gillis, who joined the Tahoma Audubon Society about a year ago, followed the Cornell directions with a plan to attract chickadees or wrens.
“I’d never made birdhouses at all,” she said, but by spring, she was overcome with bird-watching bliss. Black-capped chickadees nested in several of the nest boxes on property surrounding her Midland home.
Luckily for Gillis, her husband is in the business of recycling construction debris and other castoffs, such as dismantled cedar fencing and shipping crates. So together, they built boxes for themselves and made others into Audubon gifts.
If you live near a wooded lot or have lots of shrubs, flocks of chickadees may swoop in. You’ll notice their distinctive coloring and their tiny silhouette: almost round with relatively large heads and nearly invisible necks. Streaks of white separate their black caps from black bibs beneath their beaks. Listen as they call their name: chick-a-dee-dee-dee.
If you follow the state agency’s plan, this type of songbird nest box requires only six cuts, including two slanted ones. It’s possible to do the job with a hand saw. With a little supervision, children can help. Gillis said it helped that her husband owns an electric screwdriver. “It does take an adult hand,” she said.
She pointed out the importance of sizing the entry hole, or doorway, to the type of birds you hope to house. Gillis was keen to avoid house sparrows, which, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, can’t squeeze through holes smaller than 1 1/8 inches in diameter. Both websites specify diameters for various bird species; you may need a special drill bit to create the opening.
To block house sparrows, the state recommends a horizontal, diamond-shaped opening that’s no more than 7/8-inch from top to bottom and stretches 3 ½ inches wide.
The thickness of the board also is significant, Gillis said. The walls of the house insulate the nest from extremes of both heat and cold. Make sure your board is at least ¾-inch thick, typical of most 1-inch lumber. Thinner walls won’t provide sufficient insulation.
While you may want to apply a protective or decorative coating to the outside of the house, avoid applications of paint or varnish that might contaminate the interior, Gillis said. If your lumber is smooth, the Cornell Lab website suggests roughing up the inside below the entry with coarse sand paper. Alternatively, score the same spot with a series of narrow horizontal cuts to make it easier for fledglings — swallows in particular — to emerge from the box. The state agency recommends using untreated, unpainted wood such as cedar, which resists rot and won’t require protective coating.
And don’t provide a perch. Birds don’t need them; they make it easier for predators, such as squirrels, to invade the nest.
Both Cornell and Department of Fish and Wildlife highlight features that will improve your success, such as:
Add drainage holes, or trim off the corners, of the floor board.
Cut two little ventilation holes on each of the side walls.
Recess the floor to keep it dry.
Even if you don’t want to build a house now, spring will be a great time to watch as birds zip to and from their nest spots. Be inspired by an early morning walk, when bird songs fill the air. You may notice them carrying materials for nest building. Later, don’t be surprised if you witness special deliveries of rations. Or hear hungry chicks cheeping for more.