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For the birds: Attract feathered friends by building them a house

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

Diane Greco
Diane Greco shows grandson Eli Fuqua, 3, what is in one of the birdhouses at the Virginia State Arboretum. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Diane Greco shows the insides of a birdhouse
Diane Greco shows grandson Eli Fuqua, 3, the insides of a birdhouse at the Virginia State Arboretum. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Greco checks the contents
Greco checks on the contents of a birdhouse at the state arboretum. Dennis Grundman/Daily

A nest
A nest can be seen inside one of the birdhouses. Dennis Grundman/Daily

On a recent mid-summer evening Diane Greco, of Star Tannery, and her grandson, Eli Fuqua, 3, visited the State Arboretum of Virginia at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce to monitor some birdhouses on the Bluebird Trail. A volunteer since 2003, Greco comes to the arboretum at least once a month, sometimes bringing along Eli who enjoys looking for signs of birds nesting along the trail.

"A bluebird nest is pine and coarse grass. It looks like this is a bluebird's nest that was taken over," she says of a nest that now contains feathers from a tree swallow.

"The tree swallow has a dirtier nest than the bluebird," explains Kaycee Lichliter, Bluebird Trail coordinator for the arboretum, who looks on as Greco and Eli complete their monitoring of the box. It is not unusual for another bird to move into an abandoned nest, Lichliter says, but the time period of turnover is short since volunteers at the arboretum clean out the boxes each year at the end of March in preparation for the new season.

Her love of birds inspired Greco not only to help out at Blandy but also to house birds at home. A birdhouse that her daughter built at Robert E. Aylor Middle School in Stephens City in eighth grade has rested at Greco's house for years and still provides a seasonal home to birds in need of shelter for their families.

"The bluebirds did lay and the nestlings were hatched," Greco says of recent tiny feathered tenants, though sadly they did not survive the attack of a prowling cat.

Lichliter says birdhouses can provide a welcome home for birds each year and can offer a fun family project for all ages. Proper research and safety measures will make the birdhouse one that will last for years.

Choose a bird

"Figure out what type of habitat you have first," Lichliter says. Different birds look for different places to build their nests, she says.

What type of birdhouse you build and when you set it up will depend on the type of birds you would like to attract, Lichliter says.

Bluebirds prefer the open ground, she says, with sparse trees. Carolina wrens will often build their nests on people's front porches in flower pots or old boots. Some other birds native to the area are the rock pigeon, European starling and the house sparrow.

"House wrens are going to town right now," she says.

Bluebirds begin breeding in early spring and then have two more broods later in the year. They are currently in their third brood, she says. Tree swallows begin breeding after the bluebirds' first brood, then the bluebirds begin their second brood, then the house wrens have their first.

"And it's all timed with when the insects are going to be hatching out," Lichliter says.

Build a penthouse

"If someone's serious about attracting birds to their yard they don't want to use the ones that are decorated," says Lichliter. Birds will not be safe in a birdhouse that stands out from its environment, she says, so the best houses are ones that blend into their surroundings.

The Bluebird Trail at Blandy offers 127 plain wooden boxes made for bluebirds, but are also ideal for tree swallows, house wrens and Carolina chickadees, which are all able to fit through the 11/2-inch diameter hole at the front of each box. The smallness of the hole will keep out larger birds, allowing your box to cater to only the birds you hope to attract.

Birdhouses, to some species of birds, are crucial to their continued existence in the area.

The purple martin travels to Virginia each year from South America specifically to breed and raise its young, Lichliter says. The bird, she says, depends solely on human-made structures. A concern is that the bluebird, a species that has long been in trouble, will soon become just as dependent on man-made structures, she says.

"[The] first objective of the trail is to provide habitat," she says. "If we didn't provide this nesting cavity for birds, they wouldn't be nesting [in this area]."

For birdhouse plans she recommends visiting the Web site for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.birds.cornell.edu, which provides plans for various types of birdhouses.

"[It is] the hub of bird research in the U.S.," she says.

Safety first

"If you're serious about attracting a bird, go for functional," Lichliter says.

Besides having protection from the winds and rains, a bird will be safe in a birdhouse only if predators cannot fight their way in.

"First thing we did was put them on metal posts," she says of the birdhouses on the Bluebird Trail. The trail, founded by the Virginia Bluebird Society and funded by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Audubon Society, began in 1997 and was updated in 2004 when Lichliter took over as trail coordinator.

Mice were able to climb the posts to get to the birds' eggs inside the boxes, so Lichliter and other volunteers at Blandy attached PVC predator guards, metal tubes with foam insulation blocking the top, so anything burrowing inside the tube would not be able to climb out the top and into the birdhouse. Still, raccoons could climb around the tubes to reach the birds, so Lichliter attached a stove-top baffle to each post.

Noel Guards, wire netting around the entrance hole of each box, keep cats from being able to reach inside to grab a bird, Lichliter says. A raccoon is able to reach past the Noel Guards, though, so she stresses the importance of the stove-top baffles, some of which along the Bluebird Trail sport evidence of raccoons' attempts to climb up to the birds. So far, all those precautions combined have done the trick to keep the birds safe in their homes.

Location is key

Once the birdhouse is built and predator guards are ready and waiting, the final step is deciding where to position the birdhouse.

"I would mount it on a metal fence post, free standing, not on a fence," Lichliter says. Situate the birdhouse so it is facing east, away from the direction of the wind. She says this location is best for when a baby bird fledges, flying from the nest, so that it will have a place to land, such as on the ground or a tree.

"Both parents actually fly beside it into the tree. It is so cool to see," she says.

Another reason to keep the birdhouse so far from other objects is for safety's sake. In a tree, it is subject to any animal that can climb, such as mice, squirrels and cats, Lichliter says.

Lichliter cautions that anyone removing trees from their yard first check for birds' nests.

"I would do it when trees are not in leaf," she says.

To volunteer at Blandy or for more information about the Bluebird Trail, call the State Arboretum of Virginia at Blandy Experimental Farm at 837-1758, ext. 0. Classes to become a volunteer at the arboretum begin in late February. Noel Guard plans are available online at www.birds.cornell.edu and at www.nabluebirdsociety.org.



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