What makes a quality birdhouse?

by June Portnoy       

Martha Washington Garden Club members and guests received helpful tips on how to construct and buy quality birdhouses during their March 22nd meeting at the Lower Bucks Masonic Hall in Yardley.

Guest speaker Jack Jones spent the past 11 years taking down old barns or rummaging through fallen barns to find “treasures” he can use to build birdhouses in his garage workshop.

All of his birdhouses are made from repurposed materials found in these barns. Jack explained that birds lose part of their environment when people cut down trees to develop land, and therefore, they need alternative locations where they can nest. As a result, birdhouses serve an important function.

According to Jack, there are certain features you should consider when buying or building a birdhouse, and the size of the hole is critical to a birdhouse. The standard size hole you see in birdhouses for most yard birds, such as finches, sparrows, wrens and chickadees, is typically 1 1/8 to 1¼ inches.

“If you create a hole much larger than this, you end up with nuisance birds, and worst yet, squirrels that take over and build their own nests inside,” said Jack.

Birdhouses are used by cavity-nesters, meaning birds that build nests, lay eggs and raise their young inside these sheltered chambers or cavities.

Jack described how many store-bought birdhouses have sharp edges inside and outside the hole, causing birds to rub off their feathers when they enter or exit their homes. To prevent this issue, he uses a router to smooth the holes in his birdhouses.

“You also want to consider ventilation when building or buying a birdhouse,” said Jack. “Simply drilling a hole in the back is not enough ventilation. I leave a gap underneath the birdhouse to allow air to come up and circulate in and out.

“During the summer when the sun is hitting the house, it gets very hot and you need that additional ventilation.”

Jack said that the optimal location to hang a birdhouse is from a branch in a tree because birds like to move from branch to branch, eventually landing in their birdhouse. A post and shepherd’s hook are two other possible settings on which to hang a birdhouse, but if choosing those locations, Jack suggested placing the birdhouse next to a hedge. This way, birds can look out from the hedge to be sure there are no predators before flying into the house.

Jack emphasized the importance of a metal seal across the top seam on the roof of a birdhouse. “The seam on top of the birdhouse is where it will start leaking, and once it starts leaking, it will eventually collapse,” he explained. Jack uses copper found in barns to place on top of all his birdhouses. He also uses expensive glue to seal the top to prevent leakage. This glue ensures the seams are very tight and secure.

In addition, Jack uses a quality water sealer that works so well that if you pour water on it, the water actually beads. He does caution against using water sealers with strong odors because that could adversely affect the birds’ health.

Another feature to consider is using a high UV protection. “The sun will damage and deteriorate a birdhouse very quickly,” said Jack.

“Most of the standard birdhouses you buy don’t have copper on top; nor do they have water sealer or UV protection. Without these features, it’s highly likely you will end up buying a new birdhouse every few years.”

Now is the time to start looking or building your birdhouse because by early April birds begin building their nests, and most of them will nest two or three additional times until late August or early September.

It’s around that time that Jack suggested taking your birdhouse down. “You must clean your birdfeeder at least once a year,” said Jack, who opts to clean his the end of each year before he puts his birdhouses away for the winter.

A birdhouse with easy cleanout is another important feature to look for in a birdhouse. Jack builds his houses with four screws at the bottom so it easily comes off. He suggested using diluted Clorox® Bleach to clean the entire inside of the house.

“If you don’t clean out your birdhouse, it will get really messy and could end up with mites that are unhealthy for the birds, ultimately killing a lot of the babies,” described Jack.

He added that it’s best to keep the birdhouses inside all winter because during this time, birds typically prefer living in trees where they are protected from the cold weather.

Jack concluded his presentation by showing some of the unique items he’s found inside barns that he has used to construct his birdhouses, such as deer antlers converted into perches, beams from barns used as feeders and even old license plates that he has transformed into birdhouse walls.

For information about upcoming speakers at Martha Washington Garden Club meetings, visit or e-mail them at