It seems that every two years I have to make a new bluebird house design. I hope these answer all the issues the prior designs haven’t addressed.
Two different designs of the past were my Zero Profile https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2017/07/13/zero-profile-bluebird-houses/ which are only used by tree swallows, my redwood house designs began here https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2015/06/ which led to https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/mountain-bluebird-house-upgrade/ and then a series of 6 slot houses https://dangerhart.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/mountain-bluebird-condos/ that the bluebirds have used successfully.
Grant deadlines have kept E busy ’til now, and lucky for us, the weather up North has been cold and the spring has been slow. We saddled up the truck and jumped out of town in a hurry, as soon as E could break away. After a cool and blustery drive up, I unloaded the truck in a twilight rain squall.
The morning’s high grass needed to dry out from last evening’s rain before mowing, so I set about fixing the water heater, frizted during last fall’s hunting party, replacing both elements and the bottom thermostat. The elements were really stuck in there, and took some ranch-ineering to create smooth enough application of leverage to break loose without breaking. Got it all figured with a thick old bent nail and a section of pipe.
-from E’s letter home: Last fall, Dan had put down a used rubber pond liner to deter weeds there at the edge of the iris bed where the foot bridge ends over to the corral gate. He pulled back the liner and discovered where all the garter snakes were living and a larger snake that looked like a rattle snake without a rattle. Eghads what a greenhorn mistake! Nine or ten garter snakes (each 24 inches in length) slithered away, but the other snake stood its ground. We had both been walking all over the rubber surface and stepping on the snakes, so that added to the weirdness of the discovery. Dan was pretty freaked out and decided to off the larger snake to be on the safe side. Internet searches when we got home confirmed that we killed a bull snake. They are difficult to distinguish from rattle snakes and flatten their heads to resemble rattle snakes when threatened, which is just what the snake did. So, we feel pretty bad ….. but with treatment cost of rattle snake bites coming in at $100,000 – $120,000, we thought better safe than sorry.
Just after dark a funky short semi truck drove past, and a bit later E saw bright lights up the coulee. It was our bee keeper, dropping off hives while the bees are all home for the night. He headed down and placed hives at the neighbor’s as well.
E & I had planned a ski trip to the ranch in February, but Montana’s -20F arctic air and feet of snow had kept us homebound 530 miles due south in balmy Salt Lake City. Last weekend would be the last weekend for snow, so we drove out in a bit of a snowstorm that spanned nearly the entire trip, but only spat out a few white-out 4×4-only sections. We saw a huge herd of hundreds of Elk in the Madison River valley outside Yellowstone Park, as well as a Bald Eagle flying up the river. At Three Forks we saw Blue Heron’s and Buffle Heads (ducks), near where we spotted a Moose and her calf in fall. We made it over King’s Hill pass before the storm settled in, and I jumped back over the snow-blasted pass the next morning for powder skiing at Showdown before it closed for the season. The rest of the week was spent sledding, taking Nora up Belt Creek canyon for a Nordic ski along a snowbound mountain creek, skiing the snowbound Kibbey Ridge road section of our bluebird houses, stomping about the hills in snow-boots, and keeping the wood-stove fed. As we diddled around on the snow, the Mountain Bluebirds began arriving in threes and pairs- or multiple singles.
Our overwintering Nuthatches had kept watch over the house and greeted us with enthusiastic antics. Mountain Chickadees had joined them and the ranch yard was a jungle gym of little birds catching bugs from the air. On a clear starry night standing out in the frozen silence, a sonar note repeated mechanically from midway up a hillside. It was emanating from a rotating platform, fading and growing more precise as it pointed in my direction, then past me and down the valley rotating around up the valley and down again. I hadn’t known we got submarines up this high, that, or it was a Saw-Whet Owl (it took two bird books to rule out the submarine). Coyotes sang at night and chirped from the hills during the day. The arrival of the Robins and the thawing of the yard creek signaled the slushing of the snow and the mushing of the mud, and we headed home a few days early in a truck more mud-ball than metal.
June’s trip to the ranch revealed Tree Swallows taking over many Bluebird houses. They are lovely little birds, and will nest next to Bluebirds and vice-versa; so I came up with a new design of birdhouse to place 25-50ft from the existing wooden houses. Some parameters: I want it to sleeve over the wooden fence poles of the barbed wire fence offering no incentive for cows to rub on them; easy to check for nesting birds via removable lid, with escape for mother out from entrance hole; easy to anchor to post and remove from post and clean out; insulates from heat & cold; waterproof and ventilated; can handle the harsh extremes of Montana highlands- all-weather / UV / extreme wind.
The far right is the first try; all black ABS in two sections connected by a snap-in drain insert (glued to the bottom/footing and pinned with a bolt to top/birdhouse, the lid is an insert bolted in place with a an inner screw-in lid as overkill for cleanout, the whole thing is spray-painted white and cost $17 per unit. Incredibly tough, but too pricey.
Next was an attempt to blend white pvc and fiberglass fitted inserts (ABS don’t fit and there are no similar PVC parts) – so no way to glue and join top to bottom. Plus, the inserts never quite snug-in or are too big. Too many issues and pricey; abandoned to the bin.
Finally I came up with a mix of irrigation tubing (multi-layered freeze-proof), black ABS tubing and black ABS drain insert, capped with a simple white pvc cap.
4″dia x 10″ sections of insulated pvc irrigation tubing (10′ length @ $10.35)
4″dia x 4″ sections of ABS black (2′ length @ $10 x 3ct = $30)
4″dia ABS black Snap-In Drain Insert ($3.08)
4″dia Cap pvc ($2.48ea)
Total $102 per 12 houses, or $9.50 per house. Cost per unit just tops redwood/cedar, but these should easily outlast the wooden houses with no issues of warping & splitting, cleaning/viewing access, livestock damage; we’ll see what the Bluebirds think.
Notes: 1. With reciprocating saw or bandsaw, cut irrigation tubing to 10″ sections / Cut black ABS tubing to 4″ sections (clean & level on sanding belt). 2. Put white cap on 10″ Irrigation tubing and measure down 1″, using 1.5″ hole saw, cut out entrance hole (angle upward slightly to deter water runoff), remove cap. 3. Put Cut-Off wheel on drill; scribe 3 lines below entrance as toe-holds, then move to inside wall and scribe midway at entrance down to bottom for fledging chick’s toe holds. 4. Place white cap as roof, drill hole for bolt undersize and bolt will self-tap, then drill 12 holes around back edge of cap & through pipe for ventilation (upward angle to deter water & small dia to deter insects). 5. Sanding Drum on drill bevels out base of irrigation tubing for seating ABS Snap-In Drain Insert (plus smooth entrance hole)- press insert into place with squeeze clamps or tap with dead blow hammer. 6. Brush out and wipe down interior. 7. ABS glue to bottom of Drain-Insert & 4″ section of black ABS, join and press for 30 seconds, set aside for curing. 8. Drill two holes near bottom of ABS tubing, run galvanized wire through ea. hole to drop well below rim of tubing, and use pliers to clip outside section leaving enough to twist into a loop/anchor. The wire runs down inside tubing and will wrap around woodscrews drilled into the fencepost, holding the house in place. 9. Drill holes into black ABS near joint as ventilation from the bottom (visible on far R prototype).
Crushed a 1200 mile drive into a long weekend for a jump up to the ranch. The yard should have been impassible without a machete, but it had been mowed: I’m guessing our good lessee brought up his riding mower on a visit up to his herd. And I must have Rodney to thank for coming up with a solution to shutting off the water in the springbox, way back on last fall’s hunting trip!
E has a broken thumb from taking a spill on her road bike going over a tight curve of RR tracks, so our candid-shot photographer was down: so the Bluebird house update has no images. Bluebirds are nesting in the garage and galvanized machine shed, leaving the only remaining yard birdhouse to Wrens. Out on our wider Bluebird House trek we shunted a few nests of unhatched Tree Swallow eggs, and the distressed birds pinwheeled around, taking turns looking into the empty house and coming to grips with their loss, then stoically set to building new nests. Bluebirds still hold the majority of houses, but the lovely little Tree Swallows are the competition; it makes it hard to dump the nests as they bravely hover overhead in dire concern- I could only do it a few times and only for eggs, leaving a few broods of hatchlings. (A bit of googling upon return to SLC and found that Tree Swallows are Federally protected and their takeover of Bbird houses should be allowed; so I’ve come up with a new design for houses using PVC & similar pipe media for quick-build houses to pair with the wooden houses as BBirds and Swallows will nest as neighbors). I eventually caused the murder of a Bluebird by cleaning out a low old birdhouse of mice and placing it on a high post with a cross beam: this year a Bbird set up a nest and something ran across the cross beam and reached in leaving a pile of spent blue feathers on the ground. So I moved that house to a safe spot.
A grouse has moved into the yard and showed up here and there like a shy chicken. Goldfinches flitted about. An Oriel flew across the yard, which was a surprise. The Orange Flicker is still building her nest in the hole in the old Willow at the footbridge. One Robin made it his business to harass her. The high bee hive on the house is abandoned, and a Wren is nesting in one of the holes the bees bored out (so still have to wait to fix that corner). The golden eagles soared around and we saw them above us all about the ranch. A Pronghorn Antelope was on Kibbey Ridge, and a cow Elk was in the verge on King’s Hill. Of course, the ubiquitous deer were all about, spikes and 4-prongs and Does. The yard bunnies and Garter snakes and bushy tailed squirrel were all present. So too the Faye.
I think I’m done now. Well, no, I still have to brand them with my insignia. And I might make an Alpine Meadows brand after my father’s Angus brand. So that makes these identical 6, plus the lid-opening / hole entry, plus the proto-house that I converted to a wren house by laying a smaller 1″ hole over the original 1.5″ hole. The bluebirds brood up to 3 times in a season, so if I get these in place soon they might find tenants this summer.
The other morning I made my first birdhouse and it will work for wrens, I guess. Today I made what will be my tweaked go-to bluebird house.
Some considerations for bluebird houses:
a-The hole needs to be 1.5 for Western Bluebirds & 1 9/16 for Mountain Bluebirds, any bigger and blackbirds will invade.
b-The hole needs to be deep, so if the lumber is 1″ or less, add a section of hardwood with a 1.5″ hole on the facing, this keeps paws from reaching in and beaks from widening the hole- and it stays quieter inside and helps deflect wind.
c-Don’t put a dowel on the front or blackbirds will perch there and trap the bluebird inside to starve them out. Do put a little shallow cut line or two on the facing if the board is smooth, to give the birds a bit of purchase as they enter. On the inside create a ladder of such cuts leading up to and halfway up the hole for the hatchlings to climb.
d-Put a channel cut along the underside of the roof, about 1/4″ back. This line drops any water that may run backward under the roofline.
e-Cut a bevel along the butting edge of the roof, matching the rake of the walls (22%). This ensures a tight fit of the roof to the back wall, as water will otherwise course down the face of the rear riser wall and flood the nest.
f-I used two cheap hinges for the lid, and left a hole open in each hinge to the rear wall. These holes I drilled through, at an angle toward an imaginary post. I will drive the hanging nails through these predrilled and metal faced holes, as I’ve seen many old houses ruined as they split around the hanging nail. There is also a toe of the rear wall under the house with a hole drilled at center for a nail. When hanging the house bring the cordless drill along, and start the holes in the fencepost to keep it from splitting. Barbwire fence posts only, as rail fences allow predators access. Face the house away from prevailing wind/weather, and preferably not facing into cattle, as they may rub it off the post.
g-The roof needs to open for two reasons. One, to clean the nest out in the fall for next season’s hygiene- the birds don’t usually remain paired past a single season, but the female will return to a good nesting site. A light internal sanding is the best cleaning method- don’t use cleaning chemicals ever. Two, so you can check the eggs a few times per week and make sure you haven’t made mistakes in design or placement that need to be addressed. Once the chicks have hatched, keep checking in, but don’t lift the lid after a week or so, or they may become curious and fledge early and die outside the nest box. Bluebirds are very tolerant of people, and allow quiet and calm humans to help them maintain their homes. I have triaged old county birdhouses with nests in them, and the birds are happier with the improvements.
h-The side panels overlap the floor by 1/4″, and float 1/16″ above the floor. This allows water/waste to fall out, and air to flow up. This is my invention, but for thinner boards just sand the four corners of the floor back about 1/8″ or till there are visible gaps.
i-There are pairs of air holes drilled on each side and on the back, plus the front panel is cut at a steeper rake than the sides, and dropped just a hair- allowing more air.
j-Connect the boards by glue, clamp tightly, then create seated tap holes and screw together with deck screws.
k-Create a latch to hold the roof closed. I use a screw on the underside of the roof eve, and two screws in the R sidewall- screwed most of the way in. Using bailing wire I anchor-wrap the roof screw and pull tight with pliers, then hand-secure the wire to the sidewall screws with an under/over bend. This way the wire doesn’t degrade and snap, and a critter like a raccoon can’t open it.