Build Birdhouses And Nest Boxes For Cavity-Nesting Birds

by Larry Jordan on September 6, 2008

Female Bluebird With Nesting Material Atop Bluebird House

Female Bluebird With Nesting Material Atop Nest Box

Birds need protective cover just like people need the shelter of a house. Cover can be provided in many forms such as special plantings, hollow logs and dead tree snags, and brush piles. Plants that bear fruit for food are the best plantings for attracting birds. The ideal bird habitat would include plants ranging in size and density from small evergreen shrubs to tall, full-grown trees. This variety will provide birds a choice for feeding, hiding, courting and nesting.

With more and more destruction of their natural habitat, many birds are having trouble finding places to nest. By providing nesting boxes or birdhouses you will encourage birds to raise their young in your backyard and stay in your area all year. You’ll enjoy watching the family life of birds while providing them badly needed shelter. 

When you place a nesting box in your backyard, you’re inviting birds to raise their families in front of your very eyes.  You’ll see birds courting mates, building nests, laying eggs and feeding young. And when it’s time for the fledglings to leave the nest, they will likely learn to feed at your feeders and bathe at your birdbaths, fountains, waterfalls and ponds!

Birds build open-cup shaped nests in trees or on the ground, or they nest in natural cavities (holes) in trees. The birds that choose natural cavities are called cavity-nesting birds.  These cavity-nesting birds will readily use a nest box if it is the right size, with the right size entrance hole and in the right habitat. Birds you can attract with a nest box (designed for the specific species) include: bluebirds, wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, Purple Martins, swallows, owls, American Kestrels and Wood Ducks.

Building birdhouses according to proper specifications, placing them in the “best” habitat and maintaining the houses regularly can benefit both the birds and us.  However, if not built and placed properly, you might have no bird visitors at all.  If you want to save time and money and make your own beautiful and practical birdhouses that birds will use year after year there are some basic rules you need to follow.

Make sure you don’t use any type of pressure treated wood. It is toxic to birds.  If you use recycled wood, make sure it was not treated with creosote or painted with paint containing lead.  If in doubt don’t use it!
Don’t put perches on any birdhouse.  Only house sparrows and European starlings (both non-native birds) prefer perches.   See my article on non-native species and how to control them House Sparrows and European Starlings.  If you have a house with a perch, remove the perch.

Provide a hinged side or roof so the house can be easily checked and cleaned each season.  This is vital to monitoring nest boxes.  You can leave the clean nest box up through the winter to give birds a dry place to roost at night but you have to have a hinged opening to check in on the nestlings during breeding season.

Bluebird Nest Box With Hinged Side

At least four 1/4 inch diameter drain holes should be drilled in the bottom of every house.  Also at least two 1/4 inch holes should be drilled near the top of the right and left sides of all bird houses or a 1/4 inch space left between the sides and the roof to provide ventilation.  The exceptions are duck boxes and winter roost boxes. Providing adequate ventilation is especially important for small bird houses.

To construct a long lasting birdhouse use exterior screws instead of nails.  Use galvanized nails to build houses only if necessary, but remember that they loosen up as wood expands and contracts in extreme weather conditions. Also the top-front edge of a bird house should overhang at least two inches to help protect the entrance hole from wind-driven rain and to keep cats and racoons from reaching in from above.

Make sure the sides of your bird house enclose the floorboard; don’t nail them to the top of the floorboard.  This arrangement prevents rain from seeping between the sides and the floor and then into the nest.  Recess the floorboard at least 1/4” up from the bottom of the sides to help prevent deterioration caused by moisture.

Wood is by far the best material for birdhouses.  3/4 inch boards are the easiest to work with.  Softwood such as pine is fine for smaller nests, but cedar, redwood or cypress should be used for larger boxes.  Make sure your construction will not injure the birds, no protruding screw or nail points.

You can get my ebook with complete instructions on how to build birdhouses at Build Your Own Birdhouse Plans or buy pre-made birdhouses at Birds In My Yard.  Whatever you decide, please remember to keep these basic rules in mind when choosing your birdhouses and, above all, enjoy all the birds that will be spending time in your yard.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Gallicissa September 7, 2008 at 9:17 pm

This nest box you have shown has such a neat design. Thanks for sharing all these valuable info.
I do not have any nest boxes in my home garden yet. Perhaps I should try one.

Gallicissas last blog post..Pure Gold!


Larry September 8, 2008 at 12:32 am

Hi Amila,
You should definitely build some birdhouses if you want to watch those cavity nesting birds real close up. It is a lot of fun to watch them raise their families. You can get more designs on my resources page and I will be putting more designs there soon.


Owlman October 17, 2008 at 12:33 pm

Hi Larry,

Great post. Would love some pics and info about your owl box.

Owlmans last blog post..Yellow rumped Warblers


Neil March 22, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Hi Larry,

Nice website. Recommend that boxes out in the sun be painted a light color to reduce heat in summer. See my website in the birds and nature section for tests that I did on this topic.



Larry March 22, 2012 at 6:02 pm

@Neil thanks for the visit. You have done a lot of work testing for overheating problems in nest boxes. It is great to have that information available on your website.

The nest box pictured above and listed on my Nest Box Plans page as the “Alternative Bluebird Nest Box” is the only design I use any more. It has the 1/4 inch ventilation slit above both side panels.

Where I live in Northern California it can reach temperatures nearing 120 degrees in the hottest summers so I encourage folks to place all there nest boxes in a location that will get afternoon shade. All my Bluebird boxes are located on the Eastern side of large shade trees facing open grassland.

I leave my boxes unpainted but I agree with you that if you have no shady areas to place nest boxes, painting them a light color and/or using heat shields is a good idea.


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