Backyard birdwatcher Gisela McFarland creates dried-gourd birdhouses for wrens


05/23/2014 7:00 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

It was a busy day in mid-April in Gisela McFarland’s backyard. A male house wren had arrived with a mission: to prepare a dried gourd she had hung from a tree for the arrival of his mate.

“He is very loud — he sings,” McFarland said. As for the female: “She goes, ‘tuh tuh tuh tuh.’ She doesn’t sing.”

McFarland knows a lot about house wrens: She’s created and hung gourd houses for them for 20 years. A favorite resource is Donald Kroodsma’s popular “The Backyard Birdsong Guide,” which includes audio recordings and illustrations of dozens of birds.

McFarland, who trained as an art historian at KU and UMKC, was born in Germany where she met her husband, Richard McFarland, when he was serving in the U.S. military at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

A retired neuroscientist, he too is a bird enthusiast, and on the day of our visit, could be seen mowing their large expanse of lawn bordered with islands of bright tulips as the male wren went back and forth, pulling dried material out of his new house.

How did you get started making these gourd houses for wrens?

At first I tried a store-bought wren home, but it took eight years before the birds used it. They’re just crazy about the gourds.

Where do you get the gourds?

You can find those figure eight-shaped green gourds in grocery stores or church parking lot sales in the fall. They cost $3 to $5. I buy seven or eight every year. Some don’t turn out, so you want to buy several.

Walk me through what you do to make a gourd house.

Hang the gourds in a warm, dry place to allow them to dry out over the winter. Once they’re dry, put the gourds in a bucket of warm water with some bleach for 30 minutes — I put a brick on them to keep them from floating to the top. Then remove the gourds from the water and scrape off the green skin with a pocket knife or a steel scraper that you can buy at the art supply store.

I sit outside and wrap a black bag around my legs while I’m scraping. The green skin may be moldy, and you don’t want that on your hands, so wear long rubber gloves. After you’ve scraped them, hang them in the basement or out in the sun to dry.

What happens next?

When they’re dry, coat them with polyurethane spray you can buy at the hardware store and let them dry again.

Using pointed pliers, punch four small holes in the bottom for drainage and then attach the chain. First wrap it around the narrowest part of the neck and then lead it up and around the stem. Adjust the links with the pliers so that it hangs straight. You don’t want water to go in the hole.

And how do you make the hole?

After you’ve determined how it hangs, draw a hole the size of a quarter in the side. You don’t want it bigger or the sparrows will go in. Use a small pocket knife to cut the hole. You just need to make a shallow incision. The thin little disk will pop right out.

Do you need to clean the gourd out then?

No. The male wren will fix the inside. He will pull things out and stuff things in. Then, when she gets there, she will throw out some of his stuff, like women do, and put feathers in to fluff it up.

How high should it hang?

Hang it 8 to 10 feet up with the hole facing south. Don’t worry if it twists in the wind.

I see you’ve hung a second gourd in another tree.

When the first brood hatches, the male sings on the next gourd. He lets her babysit, and he starts courting another girlfriend.

What are the advantages to attracting wrens to your yard?

He comes and picks all the bugs off my roses, so I don’t have to spray insecticide. And they’re so cute.


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