Safe Haven For The Night

Safe Haven For The Night

By Doug Pifer

My wife and I often look out the kitchen window at our big, white martin house these days.

A flock of seven bluebirds appears around five o’clock or so each evening. Back and forth they fly to the martin house, perch on the porches, and look in the holes. Eventually all of them disappear into the apartments.

Two- storied with 10 apartments, the martin house has been in the backyard for as long as we have lived here. We’ve made sure it stands at the requisite height and distance from the house, with sufficient open space around it for purple martins. I carved and painted life-sized purple martin decoys, which I set out early each year. I bought and played a recording of the purple martin’s dawn song for four weeks every spring, and added a taller pole that holds white painted gourds, should the birds prefer a loftier site.

Despite my best intentions, nature had other plans.

An occasional martin swoops by to have a look. They’ve perched on the house, sat on the perches, and hovered in front of the nest holes. But none ever stay. Sometimes we regard the whole thing as a garden decoration.

During the nesting season, I blocked the entrance holes so unwanted starlings and house sparrows couldn’t get in. Then I stopped doing that. Starlings came to inspect the premises, but they never nested there. A pair of house wrens nested in the gourd tower. Then a pair of bluebirds nested in one of the apartments. They came back that same year and raised a second brood. At least one brood of bluebirds has been raised in our martin house every summer since then.

Bluebirds have nest site fidelity. In other words, adults typically return to nest where they were successful in the past, and young birds hang around and sometimes return to breed at the site where they were born. Our own bluebird boxes have housed nesting bluebirds. But they’ve never been as faithful to them as they have to the martin house.

Bluebirds often stick around all winter in flocks of half a dozen or so. Like many cavity-nesters, they seek shelter at night, particularly during cold weather. This may be a hollow tree, a deserted woodpecker hole, or a bluebird house. Many folks leave last year’s nesting material inside their boxes to provide additional winter warmth. It seems our empty martin apartments suit these bluebirds just fine.

I’ve written and spoken to groups about attracting birds to your backyard. I often say, “Don’t set out a ‘bird house.’ Instead, put up boxes designed for specific birds you want to attract—a bluebird house, a wren house, or a nesting bracket for phoebes or robins. Of critical importance is site placement—put it in an environment suitable to that species.” I say good backyard habitat includes feeding and nesting sites as well as places to hide and roost throughout the year.

Now I wonder whether I really know which house is best for which bird.