Birdhouses for Our Souls
For us and our feathered friends, avian dwellings represent the hope of spring
By Noah Salt
But of course, everyone knows a birdhouse is much more than that. These days birdhouses are a statement of one’s regard for the future of the planet or at least a boon to the winged life of one’s backyard. A simply constructed birdhouse is, on the surface, a simple metaphor, but it’s also a soaring metaphor of our best hopes for nature’s most emblematic creature — the bird, a lone survivor from the age of dinosaurs — in a world increasingly under assault by man and nature.
It might surprise you, dear backyarder birder, that birdhouses were originally developed in Belgium and Holland and Germany not for protecting birds but exploiting them simply for their food supply, specifically eggs and chicks, typically accomplished with a mounted wooden or, later, clay edifice resembling a pot hung on a post or garden wall, with a narrowed entryway. In time, this gave way to the construction of aviaries and dovecotes where birds could breed and congregate for the dual purposes of feeding and inspiring their human counterparts. The artist Pieter Bruegel depicted such birdhouses in several of his notable paintings.
Even earlier come reports of artistically elaborate structures constructed exclusively for the protection and procreation of birds in ancient royal courts of China and the Ottoman Empire — some of which you can still see today in places like Beijing and Istanbul.
In America, English and German immigrants moving into the Western and Southern frontiers were introduced to the value of birdhouses by Native American tribes who used birds not only for food but also for their feathers. A typical birdhouse made by early American Indians featured a durable shelter of wood wrought from a hollowed-out birch log that included a platform for a perch — a refuge able to protect nesting birds from harsh storms, ground predators and natural disasters, a boost to the propagation of species. To this day, many tribes specialize in making such birdhouses that last for years. In early Williamsburg, citizens enthusiastically adopted the use of European “bird bottle pottery” to encourage the growth of local bird populations and a hedge against insects and other garden pests.
In an increasingly urbanized and suburbanized America, where thousands of acres of forest disappear on a steady basis, reducing the number of tree cavities that many bird species prefer, a vibrant industry of commercial birdhouses has grown up, in part inspired by the growing environmental consciousness of the nation — but also by our simple timeless attraction to the freest and most poetic living things on Earth.
Visit any farmers market or craft fair these days and you’re all but guaranteed to find a wide of assortment of imaginative birdhouses built in the shapes of mini castles, Victorian cottages and even churches. Many are true folk art gems, with price tags that reflect their provenance
Perhaps the most coveted occupant of any backyard birdhouse is the native Eastern bluebird, Sialia sialis, a second-cavity nester (meaning their beaks are too short to create their own protected spaces). They are admired for their colorful plumage and unforgettable birdsong, and poets, artists and bird-admirers from Plato to Henry David Thoreau have hailed them as the true harbingers of spring’s return. With the accelerated loss of habitat and wide use of pesticides between 1920s and 1970s, bluebird populations across the United States were nearly devastated.
Thanks to a variety of avian and wildlife organizations and the rising consciousness of their value to the life of the planet, however, bluebirds have been making a healthy comeback in recent years. Almost every home supply and hardware store in the land sells native bluebird birdhouses, tight little boxes mounted on steel poles designed to dissuade predators like snakes and cats from robbing their young.
To this very point, late last fall we put up an elaborately designed bluebird birdhouse by a gifted Triad birdhouse builder in our side garden, hoping it might bring some winged blue magic to our garden, come spring.
Not two afternoons later, pulling into our driveway from church, we were blessed to see a pair of bluebirds — a pragmatic female and a male in his royal blue finery — thoroughly inspecting our fancy new birdhouse. We sat in our car transfixed as the pair surveyed their potential home for 15 or 20 minutes, a magical moment before they flitted away.
“I think they were house-shopping for the springtime,” observed my wife. “They bring such happiness. I do hope they liked what they saw.”
Only time will tell, of course. It’s nice to think our swanky new birdhouse might become their home and grow their numbers in the neighborhood.