Spring Cleaning in Late Winter

Spring Cleaning in Late Winter

Winter isn’t quite yet over, but the birds are prodding us into spring cleaning. This week Dave and I spied from the kitchen window a chickadee checking out the garden’s red birdhouse. Is spring already here? Dave put down the kitchen binoculars and turned to me: should we clean out the birdhouses again?

Spring Cleaning in Late Winter

In late summer, when nesting season is over, we disassemble and clean out the birdhouses with mild soap and water. Each spring we do a touch-up cleaning because six months have passed and we want to entice birds to set up housekeeping. No matter how cute it looks on the outside, if the inside of a birdhouse has old nesting material, poop, or other filth a bird will quickly reject it.

But the red birdhouse had more than passed inspection. A chickadee poked his head out of the entry hole. Courting like a cuckoo clock come to life: Ladies! I am move-in ready!

The red and green birdhouses are prominent fixtures in WILD in the Garden State, my  documentary on how Dave and I transformed our lawn into a native plant habitat. With my GoPro I managed to get clips of house sparrows having sex, building nests and feeding their young. I shared a rough cut of WILD with Karen Walzer and Becky Laboy of Jersey-Friendly Yards. After the screening Becky asked: you know those are European house sparrows? I confessed: we couldn’t get any native birds to set up housekeeping and we really wanted to experience birds —any birds—raising their young. Karen and Becky then patiently explained that European house sparrows (Passer domesticus) don’t just take advantage of built birdhouses…they kill native birds in order to take over nests.

No, I didn’t know. Becky asked if I could get a shot of us destroying the European house sparrow nests (OK to do because European house sparrows, as exotic species, are not Federally protected) to make sure viewers know not to support these tiny invasive murderers.

Dave immediately set out to rectify the situation and made new, 1.25-inch diameter entry holes that better fit our smaller, native birds. I documented as he painted and installed the updated birdhouses. That scene was rounded out a bit later in the video with a GoPro clip of a native house wren checking out the red birdhouse in late summer.

I was glad I could insert that scene and end WILD in the Garden State on a positive note. We looked forward to next spring and a full season with the right-sized entryways.

Looking through the kitchen window, Dave kept checking on the chickadee: It’s not going near the green birdhouse. I said: it’s winter, what could be in there? Dave explained he could quickly unscrew its roof without disturbing courting chickadee sixteen feet away. Lifting up the green roof, Dave discovered a bed of sticks. Looks like that wren from last summer had begun a nest!

Dave took off the sides of the green house and found that the old stick nest was teeming with ants. No wonder the Green birdhouse was a No Go.

Ants. No wonder the Green birdhouse was a No Go.

I scrubbed the roof and house walls with ordinary dishwashing soap and rinsed away all the ants. We waited until the red-house chickadee took a break from courting and opened it up for a full cleaning as well. We let the houses dry in the sun before re-assembling. Final step: I applied a wide strip of petroleum jelly all around the top of the house post. As long as the jelly stays fresh and sticky it’s a super-effective ant block.

Petroleum jelly is a super-effective ant shield.

We waited for the chickadee to come back. Dude: two houses for the ladies!

Then, this morning we watched as a European House Sparrow squeezed itself into the red birdhouse. Damn! They are not supposed to fit in a 1.25-inch hole! Wait? Is it stuck? He sat and shifted around in the entry hole for so long we thought he was stuck. But no…he then easily came and went several times and attracted the attention of two females as well as a rival male. It’s like the European house sparrows were mocking us: thanks for the Spring cleaning!

European House Sparrow was not supposed to fit!

We checked the suggested entry hole dimensions again.

Oops. Entry holes have to be smaller than an inch-and-a-quarter to prevent European house sparrows from getting in.

Image courtesy of nestwatch.org

Dave’s already fixed and installed the new, even smaller entry holes.

Stay tuned to learn if the courting chickadee comes back to the updated-updated birdhouses in the WILD garden.

Entry holes are now smaller than one and a quarter inch.
Dave installing the updated-updated red birdhouse.

2 thoughts on “Spring Cleaning in Late Winter”

  • glad you rectified this birdhouse problem. I want to suggest that besides washing the houses with detergent they should also be rinsed in a solution of bleach and water 1:10 ratio (Cornell Ornith. I believe is their recommendation) then air dried before rehanging.
    Secondly, the houses are much too close to one another! Birds don’t nest in condo units they need distances of often 100 ft apart. I’m sure Cornell stipulates those ranges too. but just think about how spread out nests in bushes /trees are in your yard each year. They are not close to one another .

    • Thanks, Sue Ellen! Will plan on moving the bird houses farther apart. Yes,thoroughly clean and air dry before re-posting the bird houses.

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