For the birds! Homes for our avian friends pop up all over the Gowanus

For the birds! Homes for our avian friends pop up all over the Gowanus
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Development may be stalled along the Gowanus Canal, but at least one type of housing stock is booming.

Twenty-five new brightly hued birdhouses now line the 1.8-mile canal, thanks to the efforts of a foursome of North Carolinians who hatched the initiative, called the Canal Nest Colony. The project started two years ago with just five shelters.

The bad news? Birds are just as picky about their homes as the humans who shun living alongside a famously polluted canal, recently named a Superfund site. Indeed, this project is suffering from a case of the empty nest syndrome.

“The birdhouses aren’t being used yet because it takes a while for the birds to get used to them,” explained Hans Hesselein, a South Slope landscape architect who helped found the initiative along with college friends Thomas Ryan, David Moses, and Andrew Nicholas.

Moreover, the birds require a habitable environment beyond their wooden homes, and for now, the canal just isn’t cutting it, he said.

Collaborators, who began to receive sponsorship from the not-for-profit Gowanus Canal Conservancy last year, said their ultimate goal is to lend a hand in returning the canal into a sustainable ecosystem.

“The birdhouses are providing something attractive to look and at the very least suggest that there could be a viable wildlife habitat here some day,” Hesselein added.

In 2008, the foursome created the colony, the product of an Architecture League of New York design competition whose aim was to “make a difference in 48 hours.”

Back then, the group installed the five yellow birdhouses along the canal’s fetid banks, a neon and steel burst of life along the otherwise putrefactive waterway.

Clusters of birdhouses for Eastern bluebirds, the state bird of New York, as well as America kestrels, the smallest falcon in North America, are located above Fifth Street and Second Avenue.

Just above Third Street and Second Avenue are bat-boxes for a species called a little brown bat — a mouse-eared summertime godsend, as it dines on mosquitoes and other insects. More bat-boxes are planned in the future, said Nicholas, a South Slope graphic designer.

The group next plans to install five, 15-foot-tall structures resembling chimneys, to attract chimney swifts, a small bird said to resemble a flying cigar. The structures will stand at the end of Second Avenue and Seventh Street.

And when a roof is installed atop a shipping container currently used as a storage shed on Second Avenue and Sixth Street — near a Department of Sanitation salt pile — it will act as a rainwater collection system that will feed a plant nursery.

The plants — which include sweet pepperbush and viburnum, a flowering shrub — were chosen less for their beauty and more for their toughness.

“They have to be tolerant of polluted soils, drought, and salt,” Hesselein said. “They have to be able to withstand a lot.”

To learn about the project go to http://www.thiscityismine.com/gowanus.