For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Houses and People Houses

Original Air Date: April 2, 2008 Rerun Dates: March 6, 2014; March 18, 2011; April 23, 2010; March 25, 2010

Bird and human housing should be built up to code, with safety and energy savings in mind.

Duration: 4′47″


Bird houses

I’m living in an apartment that is brand new and adorable, but was designed with virtually no energy-saving in mind. The floor is beautiful ceramic tile but is placed directly on the building’s uninsulated cement slab—when I took the temperature of the floor this winter, it ranged between 49 and 52 degrees, and even when the outdoor temperature is 70, the floor keeps the apartment at about 55. And the only furnace in the apartment is a propane fireplace—a cute but thoroughly inefficient way to heat a two-story duplex. In my opinion, building codes for new construction should require a higher standard than this for energy efficiency, the same way as the codes require low flow faucets for water conservation.

I also think we should have basic building codes for bird houses. Right now you can find on the market, even in some bird feeding specialty stores and online at one site claiming to be “THE bird house experts,” houses that aren’t just poorly insulated but could be literally lethal to birds. Metal is an inappropriate material for constructing almost all bird houses—it can get exceptionally cold on freezing nights and can literally cook eggs or nestlings on hot, sunny days. Nest box entrance holes must be specific sizes related to the species a house is intended for—if a hole is too small, the target birds will be excluded, but if it’s too large, predators or aggressive competitors can get in. Wood treated to kill or deter insects or mold can kill birds, too. Perches are an outright invitation to House Sparrows, which are declining in their native Europe but dangerously numerous here where they were introduced and compete with native species.

People who spend seventy-five or a hundred dollars on a bird house expect it to be constructed following reasonable guidelines. But actually, although there are many sources of information about safe nest box construction, there are absolutely no legally mandated safeguards to assure consumers that the bird houses we buy are safe or appropriate, and as far as I know we can’t sue a company for false advertising even if a bird house literally kills its occupants.

One great source of information about bird house construction is a book called Woodworking for Wildlife, by Minnesota’s own Carrol Henderson. And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides nest box designs at their website. If you don’t want to actually build your own houses, you can get leads on where to buy well-designed ones from non-profit conservation groups such as the North American Bluebird Society, the Purple Martin Conservation Association, Ducks Unlimited, and various Audubon clubs. I should not have been influenced by cuteness in choosing my own housing, and cuteness is an even more powerful indicator of inappropriateness when it comes to housing for birds. The beauty of the birds and their songs should outshine the beauty of their nest box anyway. As long as there are no consumer safeguards to protect us from false or misleading advertising or claims about bird houses, we have to do our homework or the bird houses we set out won’t be doing our birds any favors, and may literally entice them to their death. Houses made of novel materials, from CD jewel cases to sewing thread spools, or painted in bright colors, or shaped like interesting human houses, are only for the birds in the dismissive figure-of-speech sense.