Artful Houses are for the Birds: Really!

The Hill Gardener

The upstairs of Gingko Gardens is filled with birdhouses and bird feeders, including puzzles that turn into cute small plastic birdhouses. Photo: Rindy O'Brien

The use of bird houses in public and private gardens seems to be a growing  garden trend and wandering around the Capitol Hill neighborhood there are a variety of bird houses swinging from the trees.  Are these birdhouses really functional or are they there just for decoration?  What does it take to attract the birds to your house?

Gordon Ritchie’s Artful Houses

One of the recent art exhibits at the Hill Center is a collection of birdhouses by Gordon Ritchie.  Nestled in the corner of the first floor overlooking the side entrance, the birdhouses are displayed on a dead tree limb. The birdhouses are unusual in shape, and upon closer examination seem to be fully functional.

Ritchie’s are truly pieces of art, and at the same time are very environmentally friendly.  Gordon got into designing and making the birdhouses when he was looking for a hobby and thought woodworking might be fun.  “It didn’t take long for me to tire of making the basic square bird houses, but I had a few ideas of different houses I would like to try,” said Gordon.  His houses are made from reclaimed wood, and he says that he doesn’t buy any of his materials.  His wood may come from construction sites, dumpsters, and his exotic woods are given to him as end pieces from a framer.

The birdhouses are designed to be interesting, like the “Lunar Crator” or the “Portico” which is a long rectangular one.  Since Gordon uses only natural woods, he chooses to put a Danish Oil finish on the outside, which gives the houses some luster.  He doesn’t paint them.

So, does color matter?  Do birds shop or hop around to locate in the brightest house on the tree block or not?  In Gordon’s experience he says that birds do not seem to discriminate at all between the brightly painted houses and his natural ones.  Cornell University experts, the leading university on birds and ornithology, say that untreated wood really is better for attracting some species of birds. But everyone agrees what really matters is the size of the hole for the birds to enter the house and the house’s location.

Matching your House to the Bird

Every bird expert consulted agree that birds will nest in about any kind of bird house as long as you get the hole size right.  Small birds, especially, want the security that only their size can get into the space.  Gordon says that the biggest birdhouses he is aware of are birdhouses designed for ducks, and that duck houses can be very popular if you live near a river or stream.  For Capitol Hill residents, wren sized houses are going to be the most popular sized house.  He says that he often is asked if he can build a bird house to attract blue birds for urban dwellers, but the truth is that blue birds need more open space and even the best designed bird house isn’t going to bring them to your front door.

Birdhouses are also called nest boxes and for some species all that is required is a landing pad and some cover.  For other birds the house needs to have a cavity or be enclosed.  These type of houses should have proper ventilation holes, sloped roofs, rough interior walls, and drainage holes.  Birds that like to nest inside are ones like chickadees, wrens, and blue birds. The birdhouses should be in a shady spot, and some say away from direct wind.

Keeping the Bird House Up-to-date

With fall coming, it is time to clean out the birdhouse.  Birds will return to your bird house again in the spring, if you take the time this fall to clean out the old nest; maybe put a new coat of oil on the outside, and repair any damage incurred by this year’s birds.  Some folks also add bird feeders to their bird outdoor inventory.  Matt Fox of Gingko Gardens says that Hill residents really go through the birdseed starting in the fall and through the winter, so they are adding new inventory at this time of year.

The upstairs space at Gingko Garden has a corner dedicated to bird houses, nesters, feeders, and even a bird puzzle that can be put together to create a really small and

attractive birdhouse.  Small starter birdhouse kits begin at about $12 dollars and designer hand-made birdhouses, like Gordon Ritchie’s, sell between $125 to $250.

In Turtle Park, across from Eastern Market, the park association buys hand-made birdhouses to put in the crape myrtle trees.  Some of the houses have been there for years and provide color to the park during the winter months.  Over at Virginia Avenue Park near the new 11th Street Bridge, there are a series of very old birdhouses that were designed to look like the White House, and other Washington monuments.  Some of the houses have been lost to time, but others remain and the open platforms still provide larger birds with nesting opportunities.  Evidence that birds are using the houses was clearly evident.  What bird wouldn’t want to stay at the White House while in DC?

So, if you are thinking about what to do with your garden now that summer flowers are quickly fading, think about a birdhouse.  Gordon Ritchie’s creations can be seen, after the Hill Center show closes, at the Liberty Art Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Gordon also doesn’t mind a call at his home, 910-787-3795 to arrange a meeting to see his birdhouse creations.   Staff at Gingko Gardens, 911 11th Street, SE, are also happy to show you their more colorful houses and feeders.  And as a Frager’s employee told me while looking for birdhouses at their garden center, “just remember there aren’t any foreclosures in the birdhouse market.”

Rindy O’Brien lives on Capitol Hill and appreciates the intersection of art and garden when it comes to birdhouses.  For comments or questions, contact Rindy at