His eye is on the sparrow

When he was approaching retirement three years ago after a career spent washing coach buses, William Johnson says he knew he “had to find something to do.”

Home tweet home: Leicester resident William Johnson makes birdhouses. Lots of them. photo by Kent Priestley

Johnson’s “something,” it turns out, is building birdhouses. He makes them from plywood, pine and strips of ash, sometimes as many as a dozen in a week’s time. They are detailed avian homes, made to look like old-time mountain cabins, right down to their tiny porches, chimneys and clapboard siding.

“Keeps me busy,” he said. “Out of the house, you know.”

On an afternoon last week, the 66-year old Johnson was in the shed behind his home in Leicester. A thermometer tacked above the shed’s door registered 100 degrees. Inside, a window fan stirred the air just enough to make things bearable. Johnson didn’t seem to mind at all. His handiwork surrounded him: birdhouses in various stages of completion, from neatly stacked slabs of wood to fully realized chickadee châteaux, each stained a rich butternut color and given a protective top-coat courtesy of his wife, Eileen. Racks along the shed’s walls held clamps and tools. A framed picture of Reba McEntire hung near the door.

Johnson’s prototype birdhouse from three years ago had eight entrance holes, a veritable wren walk-up. “That’s the first one I made, just messin’ around,” he said, gesturing toward it. “I decided that’s too big.” He’s downsized since; most models today have between one and five holes (costing $20 and $35, respectively).

They sell by word of mouth, by way of a friend who takes them to festivals, and from Johnson’s own truck, which has a hand-built wood topper with BIRDHOUSES FOR SALE painted down the side in jaunty letters. Two springs ago, while he was parked at a turnout along Leicester Highway, Johnson sold a truckload of birdhouses in four hours. This past spring sales were slower, partly, he guesses, “‘cause gas was so high.”

Johnson’s birdhouses are solidly built and so far have appointed yards in New York, Texas and several neighboring states. “The farthest away I’ve got one is in London,” he said. “A woman asked me, ‘You reckon I could mail one of these to my sister over there?’ And I told her, ‘Far as I know you can send it.’” He laughed at the thought of it.

Three of the birdhouses, in various sizes, are mounted to a pole high above in the couple’s backyard. Two years ago, a male sparrow took up residence in one and has lingered ever since, despite the fact that his woman-friend flew away long ago. Apparently, this is a bird that knows good real estate when he sees it.

“Other birds come around and he scares them off,” Johnson said. “He won’t let nobody else in.”

To get a birdhouse of your own, call Johnson at 683-3327.

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