By Natalia Hook
One of my personal favorite spring pastimes is watching the birds that come to our backyard feeders and nest in the hedge. Once we figured out how to choose the right kind of bird feeders, we were able to attract a number of different species, and the addition of a bird bath brought even more. This year we decided to encourage more local birds to nest on our property.
And why buy a birdhouse when you can make one? You don’t even need to be handy; birdhouses made from gourds are easy and fun DIY projects. There is nothing to build, and very little tool use required. Sound too good to be true? Keep reading, and learn how to make a painted gourd birdhouse in eight simple steps.
Gourd Birdhouse Materials:
- Dried gourd
- Scouring pad or steel wool
- Medium grit sandpaper Dust mask
- Dust mask
- Drill, paddle or hole saw bit, and 1/3 or 1/4 inch bit
- Butter Knife or long handled spoon
- Exterior paint or polyurethane and brush
- Wire for hanging
The best kind of gourd to use for this project is the bottle gourd, also known as the hard shelled gourd and (surprise!) birdhouse gourd. The natural shape varies, including an hourglass and a rounded pear. Bottle gourds of this second variety are often called martin gourds because they are the perfect shape for purple martin nest sites.
If you don’t grow your own gourds, you can buy them both fresh and dried at farmer’s markets, on Etsy or Ebay, and seasonally at some grocery stores. Drying gourds takes several months, and is usually done over the winter after harvest. If you want to make your birdhouse right away, start with a gourd that has already been dried.
Step 1: Select a Gourd
Different sized gourds will attract different sized birds. Purple martins require a dried gourd of at least 8 inches in diameter. In suburban New York, my target species were different. Chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and house wrens are the usual suspects as far as local cavity nesters in my area, along with the ever present house sparrows and European starlings. To find out what kinds of birds are likely to use birdhouse gourds in your area, Google “cavity nesting birds in (your state.)” Seriously, this works.
I chose a martin gourd with a 6 ½ inch diameter—a good size for the birds I hoped to attract, such as nuthatches or house wrens. It was a bit too small for starlings, which was a plus for me. Both this species and house sparrows are introduced. They have done very well here in the U.S., and while I wish them no harm, I prefer to focus on our native birds.
If you have no preferences, choose whatever sized gourd appeals to you, and see who turns up. Just be aware that a single birdhouse can create competition, so you may want to make more than one—I’m planning on adding a few myself. If you are courting purple martins, you will need at least four, as they are colony nesters.
Step 2: Clean the Surface
Soak your gourd in warm water for ten to fifteen minutes. Give it a thorough scrub afterwards with gentle dish soap, using a scouring pad or fine steel wool. This removes surface dirt and helps get the exterior of the gourd smooth.
Allow the gourd to dry completely, then sand the exterior with medium grit sandpaper to finish smoothing out the shell. This can get a little dusty, so it’s a good idea to wear a dust mask for this step through step 5.
Step 3: Make an Entry Hole
To find the best place to drill the entry hole, hold your gourd up and look at it from the side. You want to make the entrance in the center of the most rounded part, where the gourd is the widest. This ensures that the entry is straight into the nest area, which means easy access for your feathered tenants.
Your birdhouse gourd’s entry hole size depends on the species you hope to attract. A 1 inch to 1 ½ inch entry is appropriate for smaller gourds intended for smaller birds, like wrens and chickadees. A 2 inch to 2 ⅛ inch hole is needed for purple martins and similarly sized birds, like small woodpeckers. No particular species in mind? Just suit the size of the entry hole to the size of the gourd. Use a drill with a spade bit (pictured,) a hole saw bit, or a Forstner’s bit to make the hole.
Brace your gourd firmly when drilling, and angle downwards. Remember that although hard shelled, your dried gourd is fragile. Don’t bear down on it with too much weight—let the drill do the work, and keep your bracing hand clear of the drill bit. Remove the shell cut out once the drill bit has cut all the way through.
Step 4: Clean the Interior
Use a butter knife or long handled spoon to remove the dried membranes and seeds from inside your gourd. Scrape the interior, but don’t worry about getting every little bit out. And don’t throw out the seeds—you can plant them and grow more bottle gourds for next year.
Sand the edge of your entry hole to ensure it is nice and smooth. By now, your gourd should really be starting to look like a birdhouse.
Step 5: Drill Top & Bottom Holes
Drill four to six holes at the top for hanging and air flow. Make sure two of the top holes are exactly opposite one another. You will run a piece of wire through these holes pair to hang the birdhouse; the others will help keep the nesting area ventilated. Next, drill four to six holes around the bottom of the gourd for drainage, in case rainwater gets inside. Use a ⅛ inch bit for small gourds, ¼ inch for large ones.
Step 6: Sanitize
To sanitize my gourd, I used an oxygenated bleach and water solution, ¼ cup of the bleach in ½ gallon of water. Chlorine bleach in a 1:9 solution with water can also be used. Simply mix either solution and soak the gourd for a few minutes, then rinse it thoroughly with clean water, and allow it to dry overnight.
Step 7: Weatherproof
Painting birdhouse gourds seals and protects them. Apply one coat of exterior primer and one to two coats of exterior paint to you gourd. Alternatively, you can do two coats of exterior paint with built in primer. It’s best to use light colors, as they will reflect the rays of the spring and summer sun, keeping the birdhouse interior from getting too warm.
If you prefer to keep your gourd house natural in appearance, apply two coats of clear exterior polyurethane. Whether you go with paint or clear coat, allow each coat to dry completely, and don’t accidentally seal any air flow or drainage holes.
Step 8: Hang Your Gourd Birdhouse
Run a piece of heavy gauge wire through two top holes that are opposite one another. Twist the wire around itself to form a ring, then twist the center of the ring to form a figure 8. From here, you can manipulate the wire into a strong hook, or tighten the top loop for hanging, depending on how and where you decide to put your birdhouse.
Now it’s time to get your new real estate on the market! Figuring out where to hang gourd birdhouses can be tricky, as different species of birds are attracted to different environments. For purple martins, it’s best to hang a grouping of gourds on a horizontal wire or bar in an open space. Some people even build a rack for their martin houses!
Most other birds prefer a spot with nearby brush and cover of some kind. Don’t hang your gourd birdhouse directly on a fence or right next to the trunk of a tree—this makes it vulnerable to climbing predators like raccoons and cats. Instead, hang it on a branch at least three feet from the tree trunk, or on a pole, like this shepherd’s hook. Try to avoid high traffic areas close to doors, gates, and footpaths.
Once you have your gourd birdhouse in place, it’s just a matter of time before prospective tenants come calling. Find a spot on your deck or at a window with a good view, and see who checks out the new abode. Hopefully, you’ll have a pair settle down and raise a family.
And the best part? This is just the first spring, and the first nest. Gourd birdhouses that are taken down in the early autumn, cleaned, and stored indoors will last for many years. Growing more bottle gourds and making them into bird houses is a great year long project for the whole family. And watching your backyard buddies raise their feathered families is a delightful reward!
Images used with permission, courtesy of Natalia Hook and www.shutterstock.com