Bird houses aren't only for your soul!

As the winter draws to an end and natural food sources for the birds return they may start using bird feeders less and will soon turn their attentions to nest building, so now is a great time to build and hang a bird box.

On the side of our house, there used to be a stone built lean-to (metato) in which were once dried sweet chestnuts prior to being milled into flour.

Sadly this structure fell down some years ago, leaving an exposed square of stonework. We had started the rendering of this wall but stopped once we realised that birds had started nesting a little way above.

At a certain point in the exposed stonework was a small crevice where some stone was missing and last year we noticed it had been used by a black redstart for nesting.

Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochuros)
Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochuros)

The black redstart (Phoenicurus ochuros) is a small, robin-sized bird that has adapted to live at the heart of industrial and urban centres, but which originally comes from more precipitous and rocky sites. Its English name comes from the plumage of the male, which is grey-black in colour with a red tail. In Italy the bird is commonly known as codirosso spazzacamino, which translates as 'red-tailed chimney sweep' on the account of the fact that they often sit on the top of chimneys - often the highest vantage points around. Seems you can take the bird out of the mountains but not the mountains out of the bird!

Back in the UK (where we were both brought up), there are fewer than 100 breeding pairs of black redstarts, and the species has been added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern, while in Italy they are also a protected species, so we feel privileged to have them around us now, helping control the insect population.

Having waited for them to fly the nest last summer, we filled the hole in the stonework (as part of a drama involving rodents - a whole other story) so we wanted to offer an alternative nesting site on the same side of the house in case they returned and wondered where their small cave had gone.

After a little research we found an RSPB birdhouse design for birds of this nature and size. The most important consideration for many birds is the size of the entrance hole and the height of this hole from the bottom of the box.

We used 10mm plywood and managed to get two bird boxes from a single sheet bought from the hardware store.

If you want to build one, you'll need a jigsaw, a drill with wood bit, wood glue, a small hammer and some wood tacks.

Here is the adapted plan we used (adapted to fit the size of our plywood sheet):

The front piece has a 50mm diameter hole 120mm from the bottom, and the base piece has a series of smaller holes drilled in it, for drainage.

Keep in mind that if you use wood of a different thickness you will have to tweak the measurements ever so slightly so that it fits together.

One the pieces are cut, and the entrance and drainage holes have been drilled, glue and tack them together, one piece at a time, leaving the box to dry overnight.

Making a bird house
Making a bird house

Bird house

If you want you can then paint it before hanging. I drilled a hole through the back at the same height as the entrance hole so that, with a long screwdriver, I could fix it to the wall through the entrance hole.

Important considerations when hanging the box are: it should be out of the sun so as not to get too hot (a north-facing wall is ideal), and it should be a minimum of 3m from the ground so that the birds feel safe. If you don't want to fix it to a wall you could use a tree, but in that case consider tying it to the tree rather than screwing.

Bird house

Now we wait to see whether our redstarts return!

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