Critter Condos

Austin has long been a haven for urban wildlife, but because of our recent rapid development, local habitats continue to shrink. A simple way to support our critter friends—especially our beneficial flying critter friends—is to add low-maintenance, locally made nesting boxes.

Emmy Westlake Sunshine and her family have always been outdoor enthusiasts who love attracting wildlife to their yard, so when they saw the baby owls in a friend’s nest box, they knew they had to have a box of their own. Screech owls are abundant in our area and thrive in urban settings. They eat large insects and small rodents such as mice, thus making them effective pest control. “We made our first screech owl nest box several years ago and it was amazing watching the owls come roost and begin nesting almost immediately,” says Sunshine. “We started making screech owl nest boxes for friends and family and soon we couldn’t keep up with demand. OwlReach was born shortly thereafter.”

Sunshine’s company makes nest boxes out of cedar, which weathers naturally and fades into a color similar to the bark of the tree. While most nest box openings are just big enough to allow access, her patented OwlView opening and roosting window is larger, giving both adults and owlets plenty of room to sit, roost and observe their world. “We’ve had screech owls roosting in our boxes all around the country and in some cases, within days after putting them up. Saw-whet owls will nest in these boxes, as well. The nest box only needs to be placed 10 feet up in the tree.”

Sunshine warns against installing a nest box facing north, as it increases the chances of cold wind and rain penetration. And it’s important that there isn’t a lot of brush surrounding the box or the opening so that owls can easily fly in and out. Hardwood trees, such as oak, pine, pecan and other large trees are ideal; bushy trees like juniper are not. “Nest boxes also work well on the side of a house, garage, barn or other tall structures. We recommend placing a handful of dry leaves in the bottom of the box—and that’s it!”

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Of course, we can’t talk about flying critters without mentioning Austin’s most iconic resident: the Mexican free-tailed bat. Debbie Zent grew up in Western Massachusetts, in a neighborhood that ran alongside acres of woods where she played with her brothers. “We were familiar with the wildlife that lived there and saw many birds and animals up close…except bats,” she says. “At dusk, we would watch them flit about between the trees, much too far over our heads to really see what they looked like.” This curiosity stayed with her for years, and when she moved to Austin in 2011, there was no turning back. With help from Bat Conservation International (BCI), Zent and her brother Dave started building bat houses to sell online. Their company, Austin Batworks, currently sells handcrafted single and multichamber homes that come in shades of black suede, amber leaf, canoe and toasted marshmallow, depending on what region of the country you’re in.

The success of a bat house depends on many factors, including sun exposure, paint color and distance from tree branches or other potential perches for predators. “The colors we chose are based on BCI’s twelve years of research on artificial bat roosts,” says Zent. “BCI determined specific thresholds of temperature needs for bat house success and created a map of the contiguous United States—illustrating four distinct temperature gradients. Bat houses are far more successful if painted or stained, as the darkness or lightness of color determines solar absorption.”

Bat houses should be installed, at minimum, 10 feet above the ground, but 12 to 20 feet is better. The location should be sunny, with a minimum of six to eight hours of sunlight per day, but if limited, morning sun is preferable. The house should be 20 to 30 feet from trees, wires or other potential predator perches. “If the recommended criteria are met, bat houses are more likely to be used during the first summer if installed before the bats return in spring,” says Zent. Single-chambered bat houses are most successful when installed on the side of a home, barn or other structure as opposed to poles, because they lack thermal stability. Multichambered houses have better thermal stability and are suited for either mount. “If placed within a quarter mile of water, the multichambered houses tend to attract nursing colonies, which many enthusiasts find appealing,” says Zent. The choice between a three- or four-chambered house is a matter of preference; four chambers will house about 50 or more bats, which love to congregate in large numbers.

Another beneficial local winged friend that thrives in man-made colonies is the purple martin. They’re voracious insect eaters that are a joy to watch, yet they’re threatened by invasive species, such as the sparrows and starlings that are multiplying at an alarming rate. Concerned about the plight of the martins, Danny Sinclair opened Purple Martin Propagators, an Austin-based company specializing in 12 or 24 poly-gourd rack systems installed on 14-foot aluminum poles. The gourds are made of food-grade polyethylene that provides great temperature control, and the systems are on winches that allow you to easily lower the gourds for cleaning and maintenance. Some of the gourds have sparrow traps, and all come with starling resistant entrance holes.

In light of our dwindling wildlife habitats and resources, consider helping these three local and beneficial critters by providing a home, and in return, they’ll provide you with years of beautiful entertainment.

For more information, visit: owlreach.com; batcon.org; austinbatworks.com; birdhouseinfo.com

By Claudia Alarcón • Photography by Tyler Bruce