written by Anna Bird | photos by Eugene Pavlov
In 2009, Maria and Amen Fisher entered the bird real estate business in Florence. “To convince a bird to move into one of my birdhouses,” Amen said, “it has to be just as good as one of their own or better.”
The Fishers make handmade birdhouses in a variety of house styles—including the Alpine, the Chalet, the Condo, the Flat-Top and the Open Nester—out of dead wood, driftwood, moss, cones and downed branches. They look like they would suit a hobbit, but they are made with small songbirds, robins, finches and hummingbirds in mind.
Given Back Birdhouses started after the Fisher’s store-bought birdhouses weren’t attracting birds to take up residence on their woodsy Florence property. Maria asked Amen to build a birdhouse that birds would actually want to live in, and with his background as a land surveyor and some knowledge about birds, he attempted to replicate a wild bird habitat. As he set the finished product on the ground to dry, birds tried to move in right away.
The secret, Amen found, was using wood that had died standing up, with all the sap drained out of it. Woodpeckers make the majority of wild birdhouses in dead trees with no sap left in them, according to Amen. The woodpeckers carve out cavities that other, smaller, birds later move in to. “There are a lot of symbiotic relationships that happen in nature,” Amen said.
Adopting the woodpecker strategy, the Fishers saw birds quickly take to their birdhouses. They decided to make a few more to sell at a local market along with Maria’s paintings—Maria is a classically trained painter with a master’s in fine arts from the New York Academy of Art—and the bird houses sold houses right away.
The business soon became profitable enough that they were able to quit their day jobs and build birdhouses full time. They even built a working museum, attached to their studio in Florence’s Historic Old Town, where they give demonstrations while constructing birdhouses—so they can keep up with their production schedule.
At the time we spoke with Amen in January, they had made 4,989 birdhouses in the seven years since Given Back Birdhouses’ inception. Because they’re using found natural materials, each handmade house is one of a kind. Once a week, the Fishers go scavenging for materials with their dog, Zoe. The wood they use must be fallen timber, so they don’t disturb any standing trees. They scour the beaches and the forest around their house, and people in their community have invited them to collect wood on their properties. “We try to keep it fun, but it’s also work,” Amen said. By constructing these birdhouses out of materials they find on the ground, the wood and branches and moss are, in a way, given back to the natural world.