The Buzz

Want more birds in your yard? Try adding a birdhouse or two

An eastern bluebird on a bluebird box.
An eastern bluebird on a birdhouse. (Photo via Shutterstock)

If you build it, will they come? In the case of several of our common bird species, adding a birdhouse or nesting box to your yard may help you attract some new residents. 

Spring is a good time to add a nesting box or birdhouse because birds are scouting nest sites at this time of year, the National Wildlife Federation reports. However, not all birds will move in and take up residence in your provided shelter. Typically only cavity nesting birds use birdhouses and nesting boxes, and not all cavity nesters will. In all, between two dozen and three dozen bird species will take up residence in provided shelter.

Some of the most common birds to use provided nesting boxes and birdhouses are bluebirds, chickadees, titmice and wrens, according to the wildlife federation. However, even among easy-to-attract birds, their preferences vary.  

In some areas, nesting boxes serve an important purpose, because habitat areas for many species are decreasing, according to NestWatch, a nationwide bird monitoring program from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Your yard can help fill that void when you offer shelter.

One thing to keep in mind when adding bird shelters to your yard is habitat. The common real estate paradigm location, location, location applies to bird real estate as well. Not all birds live in all places. For example, you won't be able to attract a great horned owl to your yard if you don't live in a forested area. Some birds live in variable habitats and may be easier to attract. 

Here's a closer look at some of the birds you may have move in on your property if you offer an attractive place to call home.


If you want to attract eastern bluebirds to a birdhouse on your property, location is everything. Bluebirds nest near open fields because they feed their hatchlings insects they catch from these fields, the wildlife federation reports. 

Bluebirds prefer birdhouses installed on a fence post or a tree stump, and it should be 3 feet to 5 feet off the ground. The house should be 5 1/2 inches deep and wide and 10 inches high, and the hole should be 1 1/2 inches wide. Hole size is particularly important for bluebird houses to keep starlings away. Keeping the hole size at 1 1/2 inches will be small enough that starlings can't get in and kill hatchlings and nestlings. 

Chickadees, nuthatches and titmice

Chickadees, nuthatches and titmice have similar food and feeding habits and live in the same habitats, so you may attract any of these birds if you put out the right kind of birdhouse, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Houses for these birds should be 4 inches to 5 inches deep and wide and 8 inches high with a hole that is 1 1/4 inches wide. These birds typically nest in dense tree stands or thickets, so placing it near a wooded area is best. You're more likely to attract chickadees with houses at eye level, while nuthatches prefer birdhouses 5 feet to 6 feet off the ground that are anchored to tree trunks.


Of our resident Will County owls, barred owls, barn owls and screech owls will sometimes nest in bird houses, although tree cavities are a more common choice. As you might expect, barn owls often choose nesting sites near barns, and they'll also sometimes take up residence in barns, silos and steeples, the fish and wildlife service reports. Screech owls often move into old woodpecker cavities, including birdhouses, and they prefer shelters that are lined with wood shavings. They'll also take over wood duck houses.

Because owls often take over shelters used by other birds, size isn't as important as in attracting other birds. However, because owls are larger than many of the other birds that use birdhouses, they will need a larger entrance hole. If you're trying to attract owls, make sure the hole is at least 3 inches wide.



Purple martins

Many people want purple martins to take up residence nearby because they have a reputation as being good insect eaters, particularly mosquitoes. But purple martins actually prefer feasting on dragonflies, the fish and wildlife service reports. 

Purple martins prefer to nest near the edges of streams and ponds and surrounded by lawn or fields. They need 40 feet of flying space around their birdhouses. Houses should be between 10 feet and 20 feet off the ground, and they also like to have a spot nearby where they can perch, according to the fish and wildlife service.

Many purple martin houses are sold commercially, including structures that look more like traditional houses and gourd houses, which are made from hollowed out gourds or gourd-shaped structures. When purchasing a house for purple martins or making your own, make sure each compartment is 6 inches wide, deep and tall and has a 2 1/2 inch opening hole. 


We don't think of robins as nesting in birdhouses, and they often don't. They actually prefer to build their nests in the crotch of a tree, the fish and wildlife service reports. However, they'll also take up residence in birdhouses when suitable trees aren't available. 

If you're looking to attract robins specifically, place a nesting box at least 6 feet off the ground, and look for a spot that gets some shade. If there's a muddy area nearby it will be particularly attractive to robins, because they always line their nests with mud.

The structure should be at least 6 inches wide and deep and 8 inches tall with an open front, and they'll be most attracted to houses that are earth tones rather than bright colors, the wildlife federation reports. Phoebes and barn swallows may also move in if the house is placed in a suitable habitat area. Barn swallows prefer open areas, while phoebes tend to nest in more wooded areas near water. Both like to build their nests on or near man-made structures like houses, barns and outbuildings.


Most of our resident woodpeckers won't nest in birdhouses, but downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers and northern flickers will, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Your best chance of attracting them to your yard is if you place the box up high on a tree trunk facing toward direct sunlight.

Woodpeckers prefer boxes with a rough wood interior, and you should add at least a 2-inch layer of sawdust or coarse wood chips to the box. Northern flickers, in particular, are partial to sawdust.

Flickers are the largest of these three woodpeckers, and they'll need a house that's at least 7 inches wide and deep and 18 inches tall. The opening size should be 2 1/2 inches wide. Red-headed woodpeckers need houses at least 6 inches wide and deep and 15 inches tall, with a 2-inch opening hole, while downies, the smallest of these birds, need a house that is 4 inches wide and deep and 10 inches high with a hole of 1 1/14 inches wide.


House wrens and Carolina wrens are small birds, and they require small houses. Other than that, they aren't very picky, which makes them ones of the easiest birds to attract to your yard, according to the wildlife federation.

They'll use birdhouses in a variety of habitat areas, even close to homes and other populated areas. They prefer hanging bird houses, usually from a small tree in an open area or along the border of an open area. A birdhouse for a wren should be 4 inches wide, deep and tall and should have an opening hole that's 1 1/8 inches wide.  

NestWatch offers detailed construction plans for building nesting boxes and birdhouses for dozens of species. You can look up plans for individual species, and they are tagged by the degree of difficulty. You can even find kid-friendly building plans for some species. 

Whether you're purchasing a birdhouse or building your own, NestWatch offers a few guidelines to follow:

  • It should be well constructed from untreated wood and galvanized screws.
  • It should keep birds dry. Look for birdhouses with sloped roofs, drainage holes and recessed floors to prevent the birds from getting too wet.
  • It should regulate temperature. Look for shelters with thick walls and ventilation holes.
  • It should keep out predators. Don't use birdhouses with perches, and consider adding collars, guards or stovepipes if predators are a problem.
  • It should have the right size opening for the bird you are trying to attract. 

And don't forget that birds need more than just shelter for survival. You're more likely to attract birds to your yard if it's a good source of food and water as well.

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