The Complete Birdhouse Book

The Easy Guide to Attracting Nesting Birds


By Lillian Q. Stokes

By Donald Stokes

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 26, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Attract beautiful nesting birds to your backyard with this comprehensive and beautifully illustrated guide from America’s foremost authorities on birds and nature.

Experience the joy of watching baby birds being raised just outside your door. With the Stokes Birdhouse Book, you’ll learn everything you need to know to bring nesting birds close and gain a fascinating glimpse of their family life.

This beautifully illustrated guide includes comprehensive information on how to:
  • Buy or build a successful birdhouse — complete, easy-to-follow plans are included, along with a chart giving recommended birdhouse dimensions for each species
  • Locate your birdhouse properly
  • Attract bluebirds, purple martins, and many other birds
  • Monitor boxes and control predators
  • Observe and understand the breeding and nesting behaviors of the birds in your yards



Copyright © 1990 by Donald W. Stokes and Lillian Q. Stokes

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Little, Brown and Company

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue

New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at

First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-0-316-08493-2

Photograph Acknowledgments

Animals/Animals: R. H. Armstrong — 17; John Gerlach — 76; Breck P. Kent — 75; Z. Leszczynski — 72; Bates Littlehales — 52; L. L. Rue III — 93; Fred Whitehead — 26.

Bruce Coleman, Inc.: Bob and Clara Calhoun — 51, 63, 78, 87; S. Nielsen — 57; Laura Riley — 84, 86; L. L. Rue III — 89; Joseph Van Wormer — 31; L. West — 53, 71.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology: Warren Greene — 61 bottom; Mike Hopiak — 61 top, 70; Steve W. Kress — 58; O.S. Pettingill — 7; Lawrence Wales —60.

Irene Hinke-Sacilotto: 22 top.

Denny Mallory: 8, 64.

Maslowski Photo: 1, 15, 23, 28, 49, 65, 67, 68, 69, 73, 74, 77, 81, 83, 91.

Myrna D. Pearman: 11, 59.

Photo Researchers: Bob and Elsie Boggs — 62; Anthony Mercieca — 80, 92; William H. Mullins — 27; L. L. Rue III — 79, 85.

Sid Rucker: 6.

Lorne Scott: 66.

Bryan Shantz: 20, 21 top, 21 bottom, 22 bottom.

John Shaw: 19, 88.

Stokes Nature Company: Don and Lillian Stokes/Dianne McCorry — cover, 13, 18, 25, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39 top, 39 bottom, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45.

VIREO: Herbert Clarke — 55; Warren Greene — 56; Betty Randall — 50, 54; Carl Sams II — 10; Barth Schorre — 33.

Mark Wilson: 24.

The authors would like to thank Elsie Eltzroth of Corvallis, Oregon, for supplying them with the breeding information on the western bluebird.

Attracting Nesting Birds


Many years ago, we decided to try our hand at attracting nesting birds. It was a gray and blustery day in late March, just warm enough so that the ground was partially thawed. There were no signs of birds yet, just us, our boxes, and some posts. We had fun plotting the best locations for each box, but we wondered, as we pounded in the posts, would the birds really come to nest in our meadow?

We put up five birdhouses and then forgot about them until a few days later, when we were driving by the field and saw our first visitor. There, perched on the birdhouse closest to the road and right next to our mailbox, was a beautiful tree swallow.

On our approach, it flew up momentarily. Then, to our excitement, it landed right at the entrance to the birdhouse, peered in cautiously, rocked in and out several times, and finally went all the way in and looked out at us. We had a prospective tenant!

A young tree swallow nestling in one of our birdhouses calling out for more food from its busy parents.

We were even more excited one morning several days later when we saw two tree swallows sitting on the box, for this meant that we now had a mated pair. We anticipated the joy of watching them raise a family.

Each day brought a new surprise. First we would see the female carrying in strands of dried grasses as she fashioned the nest. The male watched from the top of the box, chasing after any other intruding tree swallows, for others had also arrived at the meadow. At the end of nest building, we saw the female arrive with some beautiful white feathers. Where she had gotten them was a mystery until we later learned that some friends nearby kept chickens.

One day, when we had seen the female fly off to catch insects, we cautiously opened the nest box and discovered five snow-white eggs nestled in the soft feathers. We closed up the box and watched her return and enter to resume incubating. She sat on the eggs for 15 days, in rain, cold, and heat, taking only brief trips away from her precious job to fly around and gather insects for herself and a few times to land on the box, stretch her wings, and preen her feathers.

When both parents began to bring food to the nest, we knew that the babies had hatched. If both parents arrived at once, one would cling patiently to the entrance hole, ducking in when the other one left.

Near the end of the nestling phase, the feeding trips by the parents became more frequent, and we could hear the babies call excitedly when a parent landed on the box. Soon we saw two little heads peering out; the babies were now big enough to expectantly survey the world. We could see some jostling occur as first one, then another, vied to look.

An adult tree swallow in all of its beautiful iridescence.

Exactly 21 days after the babies had hatched, we were fortunate enough to see the first one leave the birdhouse. It had squeezed so far out of the hole that there was no turning back, so it launched into the air on its first flight. We held our breath, but did not need to worry. By the time they leave the nest, tree swallows are fairly strong flyers, though they are a little clumsy on their first attempts to land.

Soon all of the young had fledged. The family stayed another day or so in the vicinity of the birdhouse, but never went back in it. The young were fed a little by the parents and then became skillful at catching their own insects in midair.

Then one day, when we went out to the field, we saw that they had all left. We missed them, knowing we would have to wait until the next spring to have them again, swooping and soaring over our garden. We wished them a safe migratory journey and a good season in their wintering home, the southern United States coast and Central America. During those months we would clean out their box and make it ready for their return.

Bolstered by our initial success, and addicted to the joy of gaining this intimate view of the family life of the birds, we have, over the years, added greatly to the types and numbers of nesting boxes on our suburban property. We have been fortunate enough to have attracted 12 species of cavity nesters and more than 30 other species of nesting birds.

Given the rapidly increasing destruction of suitable nesting habitats in this day and age, providing nesting boxes not only is a joy for us, but is becoming more and more critical to birds' survival. We need to protect the environment we have and also to provide additional housing and food for the birds.

In this book we will tell you how to make your property a more attractive environment for nesting birds, so that you may have the pleasure of sharing their family life and the knowledge that you are helping to conserve bird populations in this critical time.

We wish you the best of luck!

Don and Lillian Stokes


Boxing Match

We were recently talking with some friends who told us that they loved goldfinches and wanted to attract them to their yard. They had put up some birdhouses, but no goldfinches were using them. They wondered if they had the wrong type of birdhouse.

The ash-throated flycatcher is one of the birds that is easy to attract with birdhouses. This individual has chosen the rotted-out knothole of a tree as its nest cavity.

Their intentions were wonderful, but they needed to know one important thing about goldfinches — they do not nest in natural cavities or man-made birdhouses; they build open nests in shrubs or trees.

Knowing where birds nest is crucial when you are trying to attract them during the breeding season. Each species has an instinctive pattern of nesting and rarely varies from it. Before you put up boxes to attract certain birds, learn the bird's nesting behavior.

Four Basic Nest Locations

There are four basic locations for nests. Some birds nest in cavities, such as tree holes, birdhouses, or the nooks of buildings. They are called cavity nesters. Common examples are woodpeckers and chickadees.

Many other birds build their nests in the open on branches of shrubs or trees. These nests are generally cup shaped and open to the sky. Such birds are sometimes referred to as open-cup nesters. Common examples are goldfinches, robins, and mockingbirds.

Most of the remaining birds build their nests on the ground, either by constructing an open cup or by scraping just a shallow depression in the earth. Common ground nesters include towhees, killdeers, pheasants, and many sparrows.

A few birds, finally, build their nests underground. A common underground nester is the kingfisher.

Cavity Nesters of North America

This is a complete list of cavity nesters for North America — there are 86 species in all. Not all of these birds always nest in cavities, but all are known to do so at least occasionally.

Some of these birds are easily attracted to birdhouses. Those that are have been marked with asterisks. For a list of common open-cup and ground nesters, see the chapter "Attracting Other Nesting Birds," pages 30–33.

Black-bellied whistling duck

Wood duck*

Common goldeneye*

Barrow's goldeneye*


Hooded merganser*

Common merganser*

Turkey vulture

Black vulture

American kestrel*


Peregrine falcon

Elegant trogon

Common barn owl*

Barred owl*

Spotted owl

Eastern screech owl*

Western screech owl*

Whiskered screech owl

Flammulated owl Elf owl

Ferruginous pygmy-owl

Northern pygmy-owl

Northern saw-whet owl*

Northern hawk-owl

Boreal owl

Vaux's swift

Golden-fronted woodpecker*

Red-bellied woodpecker*

Gila woodpecker

Northern flicker*

Red-headed woodpecker*

Acorn woodpecker

White-headed woodpecker

Lewis' woodpecker

Williamson's sapsucker

Red-breasted sapsucker

Yellow-bellied sapsucker

Red-naped sapsucker

Downy woodpecker*

Hairy woodpecker*

Three-toed woodpecker

Black-backed woodpecker

Ladder-backed woodpecker

Red-cockaded woodpecker

Nuttall's woodpecker

Strickland's woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Sulphur-bellied flycatcher

Great crested flycatcher*

Brown-crested flycatcher

Ash-throated flycatcher*

Dusky-capped flycatcher

Western flycatcher

Tree swallow*

Violet-green swallow*

Purple martin*

Tufted titmouse*

Plain titmouse*

Bridled titmouse

Black-capped chickadee*

Carolina chickadee*

Mexican chickadee

Mountain chickadee*

Chestnut-backed chickadee*

Siberian tit

Boreal chickadee

White-breasted nuthatch*

Red-breasted nuthatch*

Pygmy nuthatch

Brown-headed nuthatch

Brown creeper

House wren*

Winter wren

Carolina wren*

Bewick's wren*

Eastern bluebird*

Western bluebird*

Mountain bluebird*

Crested myna


Prothonotary warbler*

Lucy's warbler

Eurasian tree sparrow

House sparrow*

House finch*


Your Choice

You may buy a birdhouse or build one yourself. If you wish to take the do-it-yourself route, see the section "Constructing Birdhouses," pages 34–47. If you wish to buy one, you will have a variety of choices. Many good birdhouses are commercially available, and new houses are being introduced all the time. You can purchase birdhouses at lawn and garden, hardware, and gift stores, and through mail-order catalogs.

The prothonotary warbler uses nest boxes along streams, rivers, and wetland areas. It is one of our most colorful cavity nesters.

Below are some important criteria to consider when buying a birdhouse. Following these suggestions will ensure that the house you choose will be both functional and safe for the birds.



Different species of birds require birdhouses of different dimensions. Check the chart on page 14 to see if the house that you are considering meets the requirements of the bird that you are trying to attract. The entrance hole should be large enough to admit the bird, but not so large as to admit unwanted species. The interior area of the house should be large enough so that the bird can build a nest sized appropriately to hold its babies, while not so large that the bird would have a difficult time filling it with nesting material. The box should be deep enough so that several inches of space will remain between the top of the nest and the entrance hole, making it more difficult for any predator to reach in and harm the babies.

If you are trying to attract a variety of backyard cavity-nesting birds, put up several boxes with different dimensions. If you have to choose one box, choose one with an entrance hole 1½ inches in diameter, because the greatest variety of birds can use such a box. For a full discussion of proper dimensions, see "What Size House?," pages 12–15.


Birdhouses should be constructed of materials that have enough insulating quality to protect the birds and the eggs from excessive heat or excessive cold. Wood that is 5/8 to ¾ inch thick is a good choice. There are also some new composite materials on the market that supposedly possess this quality. When in doubt, check with the manufacturer. Do not buy birdhouses made out of metal (although purple martin houses made of aluminum are acceptable). The box should not be constructed or stained with any materials that could be harmful to the birds, such as lead-based paint, creosote, or pressure-treated lumber.

A male mountain bluebird attending the nest.


There should be good ventilation in the box, either through holes drilled near the top of the sides, or through some slit or crack at the top of the sides that lets air circulate.


There should be holes or slits in the bottom of the box so that water will drain out and not accumulate.


Preferably the top, front, or side of the box should open to make cleaning and monitoring possible.


Birds perceive color. The colors of their plumage have subtle and complex meaning to other members of their species. Birdhouses now come in many colors and designs, and it is difficult to know how these colors affect birds. While under some circumstances birds may nest in brightly colored boxes, to ensure success it is wise to choose boxes of more muted colors that blend with the natural environment. For purple martins, white houses are acceptable; the color helps to reflect the heat.


On Sale
Sep 26, 2009
Page Count
96 pages

Lillian Q. Stokes

About the Author

Lillian Stokes and her husband Donald are widely recognized as America's foremost authorities on birds and nature. Their books include the bestselling Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, the Stokes Field Guide to Birds, the Stokes Beginner's Guide to Birds, the Stokes Nature Guides, and the Stokes Backyard Nature Books. Lillian lives in New Hampshire. 


Matthew A. Young is is the President and Founder of the Finch Research Network (FiRN). For ten years he was a Regional Editor of the Kingbird, the state ornithological journal in New York, was an Adjunct Professor in Environmental Studies at SUNY-Cortland, and currently teaches Intro to Birding and Nature Observation classes for Cornell University and is the Board Chair at The Wetland Trust. He lives in New York.

Learn more about this author

Donald Stokes

About the Author

Donald and Lillian Stokes are widely recognized as America’s foremost authorities on birds and nature. Their books include the bestselling Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, the Stokes Field Guide to Birds, the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Birds, the Stokes Nature Guides, and the Stokes Backyard Nature Books. They live in New Hampshire and Florida.

Learn more about this author