Mary Nelson's reclaimed birdhouse with a bluebird (Photo credit: Mary Nelson)

Eastern bluebirds are very helpful in backyard orchards as they eat flying insects that can infest fruit trees. (Photo credit: Mary Nelson)

BIrdhouses are a fun way to prevent pests in your fruit trees

Fruit trees are wonderful – but not when they’re infested with pests like apple maggots and coddling moth. There’s nothing appealing about biting into a wormy apple. And it’s frustrating to see your tree’s leaves devoured by hungry insects.

So many of us wish there was one single, easy organic pesticide spray to help us protect our fruit trees from insect pests. Instead, organic pest prevention is a combination of different strategies. Some of them are more enjoyable to implement than others.

For instance, putting the right kind of birdhouse in your orchard (functional rather than decorative) can go a long way to limiting the number of pests that will set up shop in amongst your fruit trees.

Orchard Birdhouse in Avalon Orchards in Ontario.

An orchard Birdhouse in Avalon Orchards in Ontario attracts tree swallows that eat apple maggots and coddling moths. By doing that they are helping to protect the orchard’s apple trees from infestation.

This is something I learned during a visit to Avalon Orchards in Innisfil, Ontario. The orchard’s owner is Gaye Trombley and she has thousands of apple trees growing in her orchard. Each row begins with a simple birdhouse built to attract Eastern Bluebirds or Tree Swallows – both species that feast on flying insects.

“You can literally see the birds pluck the insects out of the air” Gaye told me. She explained that the birdhouses were a significant part of her pest prevention strategy.

I couldn’t wait to try one myself. So I managed to source a number of beautiful, reclaimed orchard birdhouses (click here to learn more about them) to test in my community orchard in Ben Nobleman Park in Toronto. And I bought some extras to sell to other local orchardists.

We have 14 fruit trees scattered around the periphery of Ben Nobleman Park. City staff gave us permission to install one birdhouse in our orchard. We were so excited. We looked forward to inviting a family of hungry bug eating birds to help us protect our trees.

A number of other local orchardists installed these birdhouses on their sites too. And so the experiment began. Would the birdhouses attract residents? And would our new feathered friends help us to protect our fruit trees from coddling moth, apple maggots, aphids and Japanese beetles?

When Chris Nolan opened his birdhouse, a chickadee flew out. (Photo credit: Chris Nolan)

When Chris Nolan opened his birdhouse, a chickadee flew out. Chickadees are known for eating aphids, one of a number of insect pests that can be found in fruit trees.  (Photo credit: Chris Nolan)

Creating a safe space for orchard wildlife

Chris Nolan, who lives in Willowdale, Ontario, was one of the first people who reported back to me about his progress with the two reclaimed birdhouses he installed. Chris has pawpaw and serviceberry trees in his yard.

“When I installed the birdhouses I was afraid it was too late in the season to attract birds. But within two hours the birds were checking it out. They kept flying from a local hedge into the box. I soon realized they were taking material from the hedge and putting it into the box,” he said.

That’s when Chris made a mistake. He was curious to see what the birds were up to. So, when he thought the birdhouse was empty, he took a screwdriver and started to open up the side of the box. Then one of the chickadees – a bird species known for eating aphids off trees and plants – flew out.   

“That upset me. I think I spooked them. After that they moved to the other box and I didn’t touch that birdhouse for the rest of the season. They did have babies in that one.”

Mary Nelson bought two birdhouses to protect the apple trees in her garden (Photo credit: Mary Nelson)

Mary Nelson bought two birdhouses to protect the apple trees in her garden and each one attracted a family of Eastern bluebirds. (Photo credit: Mary Nelson)

Is there room for both orchard birds and orchard humans?

Mary Nelson and her husband John Koster also bought two birdhouses for their property in Ennismore, Ontario where they are growing a variety of fruit trees including McIntosh, Empire and Honeycrisp apples, Bartlett and Bosc pears as well as cherry and plum trees and they felt having birdhouses would be a key part of their pest control strategy.

Not long after they installed their birdhouses there was a lot of action. Mary sent me this wonderful (and funny!) email:

Hello Susan,

Thought I’d let you know there’s a lot of interest in the two birdhouses this week.  Not sure if they’ve built in either of them, but they’re definitely “casing the joint”… John was dive-bombed yesterday and is gearing up for another onslaught as he’ll be working in the garden today.  I told him to at least wear his hat so they can’t scratch him up.  Do you have any advice on this?  Do we carry on and the birds will get used to our presence, or will it be a constant battle?  (Can’t we all just get along?)

It seems that the houses were located a bit too close to the vegetable garden and the birds felt threatened by having humans so close by. And so instead of (or in addition to) devouring insect pests, they hunted down poor John when he worked in the garden. Still, armed with a big floppy hat, John was protected and Mary was thrilled to watch all the activity:

“The birds seem to have settled down, and it seems bluebirds took up residence in the one (I’ve never seen bluebirds in real life before and we have them in our back yard this year!) while the swallows occupy the other and seem to have become more tolerant of us,” she wrote in an update.

Mary and John have had no serious pest infestations so far. So they hope the birds are helping to protect the trees. But they are also really enjoying watching all the action in their yard with the parents creating a nest, feeding their young, flying back and forth and so on. They’re enjoying it so much that they have ordered four more birdhouses next year.

But there will be one change. Next year they’ll move the birdhouses away from the vegetable garden to a more isolated area to protect the birds’ privacy – and to protect John’s head!

Paul Fryers more sought after birdhouse is nestled up right beside one of his fruit trees. (Photo credit: Paul Fryer)

One of Paul Fryer’s reclaimed birdhouses is nestled up to one of his fruit trees. He was hoping to attract Eastern bluebirds. He got tree swallows instead. (Photo credit: Paul Fryer)

When it comes to species, you can’t always pick and choose

Paul Fryer lives in North York in Toronto and has nine apple trees in his large garden. Like me, he visited an organic orchard that used birdhouses as part of their Integrated Pest Management (IPM) pest prevention strategy and he wanted to try it himself. Paul purchased two reclaimed orchard birdhouses from me and was excited to try them out.

Like Mary and Chris, his birdhouses attracted birds right away – but not necessarily the species he was hoping for:

“At this point, we are getting nothing but sparrows,” he writes.

“After they had raised their first young this year, I cleaned out the bird house hoping that a different variety of bird would use the houses but the sparrows just build another nest and raised another set of young,” he says.

Sparrows do eat flying insects, but they also eat seeds so their appetite for pests isn’t as voracious as Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. So Paul still hopes for new residents next year that will play a bigger role in protecting his trees. He has ordered two more houses to set up in different locations in his garden. Considering that birds often come back to the same nest year after year, that might be a good idea!

Birdhouse in Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard

Ken Roth of Silver Creek Nursery checks out Ben Nobleman Park’s orchard birdhouse

Where to put your birdhouse…learning from others’ mistakes

And what about my experience with our bird house in Ben Nobleman Park? Well, let’s put it this way. I’m a little jealous of the others! We installed our birdhouse two years ago and so far there is no sign of a tenant. Our box stands alone and lonely, with our young apple trees to the south and the cherry trees to the north.

There are no chirping babies. No dive bombing or swooping at passers by…and therefore no feasting on insect pests. What have we done wrong?

Well, all my best learning has come from my mistakes and this is no exception.

Our birdhouse in Ben Nobleman Park Community Orchard was installed right beside a pathway which local residents use to cut through the park and very close to a busy road. I didn’t really think this would be a problem at the time.

But in retrospect, I’m pretty sure that our local birds have rejected this lovely abode because it would be like living on a highway…too much human activity and not enough solitude.  With all these humans walking back and forth and vehicles zooming by would they really feel safe raising their young?

Maybe we’ll get permission to mount another birdhouse in a a different part of our orchard park one day. In the meantime, we will look wistfully at that lonely little house each time we walk by. And we can feel some solace when hearing others’ stories of success.

Have you put up a birdhouse in your orchard? How successful has  it been? I’d love to hear your stories. And to learn more about what type of birdhouse is appropriate for an orchard environment, click here.

Susan Poizner is the Director of fruit tree consulting and education company Orchard People. She is the creator of the award-winning fruit tree care training website orchardpeople.com online and the author of the award-winning fruit tree care book Growing Urban Orchards.