Tom McDonough
For the Birds

Published in OSMOS Magazine
Issue 22, Spring 2022

The birdhouse is a familiar avian architectural form, ideally made from a plank of wood between 6 and 7 inches wide and about half an inch thick. Depending on the size of the birds to be attracted, its front will measure around 8 to 11 inches high, with a proportionally taller back panel supporting a slanted roof. The inside of the box must be at least 4 inches square and the bottom of the entrance hole must be at least 5 inches from the floor—if it is less, young birds might be scooped out by a cat. The inside front surface should be rough, in order to help the young birds to clamber up. A drainage hole in the base helps to stop the box from getting damp inside. The lid should be hinged rather than nailed down, because the box will need to be cleaned out in autumn. The size of the entrance hole depends on the type of bird to be attracted. All birdhouses worthy of the wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and finches of our woodlands will correspond, more or less, to such specifications.

We owe the contemporary form of the birdhouse or, more accurately, the nesting box, to the 19th-century German ornithologist Hans von Berlepsch (1850–1915). Fascinated with birds from a young age, an avid collector of specimens from around the world, von Berlepsch turned his interests in a more practical direction after the death of his father in 1893, when he had to assume the administration of the familial estate at Schloss Berlepsch in Hesse. Concerned with the health of his forests, he sought to combat insect infestation by constructing nesting boxes which would encourage local bird populations. These were inspired by his observation of woodpecker nest holes, which he had noticed were occupied by other bird species—nuthatches, chickadees, starlings, owls, etc.—after the departure of their makers. Von Berlepsch concluded that these nests must be the ideal breeding grounds for all these diverse species. He had several hundred trees containing woodpecker nest holes cut down, and discovered that the configuration of the holes was always identical, regardless of the particular type of woodpecker that had made it. His first nesting boxes were exact reproductions of those lodges, and he would soon install over two thousand in the forests around Schloss Berlepsch. They were so successful that his designs would be sold in large quantities throughout Europe, most famously perhaps by Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds beginning in 1906.

The birdhouses seen in David Schoerner’s recent photographic series (all 2021–23), found on his grandparents’ farm in Sweden, are clear descendants of von Berlepsch’s boxes of the late 19th century. They share the characteristic typology, some rather neat in construction and some rather ramshackle, but all immediately recognizable and foursquare in their woodland settings. Like an ornithological variation of the Becher’s industrial archaeologies, Schoerner documents the boxes in all their variations. His choice of black-and-white and his rather high tonal contrast work to unify the untreated wood of the boxes with the rough bark of the trees to which they are attached, but we nevertheless remain cognizant of the odd dissonance between natural forms and human volition. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the photographs call attention to the oddity, the curious futility, of building artificial nests for creatures who will do so naturally. The phrase “for the birds,” after all, points to something so foolish or pointless as to be worthy of scornful laughter, something trivial or worthless (derived as it is from the more vulgar Americanism “shit for the birds”). Von Berlepsch would have heartily disagreed, but today we can recognize the rather romantic, even sentimental, nature of his enterprise—predicated as it was on his great wealth and his fundamentally aesthetic appreciation of the landscape, freed from productive use.

And yet ... the birdhouse does speak to some fundamental human desire for shelter, a desire that the nest of foraged materials fails to answer. The nest is open to the elements, makeshift, provisional, a fact emphasized by its derivation from the Latin nidus, which indicated merely a place of rest, of pause. The birdhouse anthropomorphizes this need, creating a miniaturized version of the home that responds to some archetype buried deep in our psyches. Intellectually we may recognize that it will be inhabited for only a season, but emotionally it seems to provide an anchor, a refuge, for even these airborne creatures. That we should want to offer a dwelling to a species unbound by gravity, a Heideggerian contradiction in terms, is truly for the birds—however, that we wish to do so is undeniable. And perhaps the birdhouse, as an answer to that wish, offers us some consolation in a world that increasingly resists such a need for shelter that is as much emotional and physical. Schoerner’s photographs, in proposing a small typology of this ornithological architecture, speak as much to their human makers as to their winged tenants.