[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly church activities, Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]
When churches talk about being “seeker-sensitive,” they’re not talking about attracting wildlife to Sunday services. But animals, in particular birds, are always seeking safe locations with ample food, water, and living space where they can settle down and start families—especially during this spring season. Church communities can provide safe havens to God’s creatures, even as they also provide communities of love and fellowship to people.
Building bird houses (or, more accurately, nest boxes) as a church, and placing them on your church’s property, is an easy and inexpensive way to encourage some of God’s avian creatures to populate your area. It is also a good activity to do as a community: Even kids can get involved with building or painting the houses, and will enjoy tracking the birds that come the church’s way. Here’s how to get started:
Know Your Birds
What are the most common native bird species in your area? This is an important piece of information to know as you plan the kinds of bird houses you’ll construct, as different birds prefer different spaces for nest-building. You can browse birds by state to learn what species might live in your area, or, better yet, you can watch those species and learn their habits with your very own eyes. Visit Flourish’s birding guide for good resources (and a few great books for kids to use, in particular) and tips for identifying birds in your area. Once you know who your regular visitors are, you can encourage them to return by creating proper nesting sites for them.
Build it and They Will Come
First things first: What should you build nest boxes with? Wood is the best building material for most nest boxes, in particular bald cypress and red cedar wood, though pine and exterior grade plywood will also suffice. However, be sure that the inside of any wood you use has not been treated with stain or preservatives. If you paint the nest box, be sure not to paint the inside of it or the entrance hole, as any chemicals that the birds are exposed to could be harmful to them. Also, paint with a light or neutral color, to keep from attracting too much sunlight to the house and toasting the birds out!
For all bird species that will nest in a birdhouse (some don’t!), the dimensions of their nesting boxes are crucial. An entrance hole that is too large will allow for other species to invade the nesting birds’ space, and a floor of a particular size is required to accommodate their nests and broods. The dimensions for the boxes of several representative species are given below, as well as the locations and heights at which the boxes should be placed.
As common bird species vary by region, the following list is just a sampling of what real estate some birds are in the market for, rather than an exhaustive catalog. But here you’ll find guidelines for building and situating bird nesting boxes for some of the country’s most common species. To see more in-depth directions and other bird house types, you can visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website on the topic.
Nesting boxes for bluebirds – If you put up a bluebird house near a 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. A bluebird nesting box is a simple construction. Its most important elements are its dimensions:
- Box floor: 5 in. x 5 in.
- Box height: 8-12 in.
- Entrance height (from base of box): 6-10 in.
- Entrance diameter: 1 ½ in.
- Placement of box (from ground): 4-6 feet
Nesting boxes for robins, phoebes, and barn swallows – Robins prefer to build their nests in the crotch of a tree. But you don’t have an appropriate tree, you can offer a nesting platform, which is also the sort of flat space that a phoebe or barn swallow will choose for nesting. Pick a spot six feet or higher on a shaded tree trunk or under the overhang of a shed or porch. This simple ledge is like a shelf, and therefore very easy to build:
- Box floor (ledge surface): 7 in. x 8 in. for robins; 6 in. x 6in. for phoebes and barn swallows
- Box height (the ledges should have overhangs to protect the nests): 8 in. for robins; 6 in. for phoebes and barn swallows
- Placement of box (from ground): 6-15 feet for robins; 8-12 feet for phoebes and barn swallows
Nesting boxes for wrens – Wrens aren’t very picky about where they nest, but building 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 will be easier for wrens to use. As male house wrens build several nests for females to choose from, hang several nest boxes at eye level on partly sunlit tree limbs. Wrens are sociable and will inhabit nest boxes close to your church building—all the better for encouraging kids (or any church members!) to watch and get to know them.
- Box floor: 4 in. x 4in.
- Box height: 6 – 8 in.
- Entrance height: 4 – 6 in.
- Entrance diameter: 1 ¼ in. (1 ½ in. for Carolina wrens)
- Placement of box (from ground): 5-10 feet
Nesting boxes for titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches - These birds 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.
- Box floor: 4 in. x 4 in.
- Box height: 8-10 in. for chickadees and nuthatches; 10-12 in. for titmice
- Entrance height: 6-8 for chickadees and nuthatches; 6-10 in. for titmice
- Entrance diameter: 1 1/8 in. for chickadees; 1 ¼ in. for titmice and most nuthatches
- Placement of box (from ground): 4-15 feet
Additional building notes:
- Ventilation – Without air vents, boxes can turn into bird ovens. There are two ways to provide ventilation: leave gaps between the roof and sides of the box, or drill 1/4″ holes just below the roof.
- Drainage – A roof with sufficient slope and overhang offers some protection from rain, but drilling the entrance hole on an upward slant may also help keep water out. You can also assure proper drainage by cutting away the corners of the box floor and by drilling 1/4 inch holes in the box’s floor.
Find more plans and images to guide the building of your bird houses from the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Making a house a home
The most fun of bird houses begins after they’re built. Taking time to observe the avian residents on your church’s property can not only foster a spirit of joy and awe within you, but it can also be helpful to conservation efforts. Programs like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch or the Audubon Society’s Great Backyard Bird Count rely on ordinary folks to observe and track the habits of birds so that their numbers—and their future—can be protected.
As you watch for your nest box inhabitant, be aware that any new box may not be used by birds immediately. It may take a while for birds to discover and begin to use the home you’ve put out for them, but don’t get discouraged! Following the directions listed and linked to here will help ensure that you make proper nesting sites that birds will eventually inhabit. Providing bird food, a source of water, and native plants in the area near your nest boxes will also attract and support more birds. Keep your eyes out!
Of course, maintaining your church’s nest boxes—by fixing broken parts, cleaning them between broods, and making sure that competitive bird species like house sparrows and European starlings don’t invade them—will ensure that they will continue to shelter God’s birds for a long time.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s nest box guide
The Audubon Society’s guide to creating supportive bird habitats
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website on homes for birds