Campus News

To say Tom Virag, the college’s Residence and guest services coordinator, is an expert in housing is true in more ways than one. Not only is he a key part of getting and keeping students settled on campus, but on evenings and weekends, he can be found in his woodshop, building houses for birds of a different feather.

Tom Virag with assorted birdhouses
Tom Virag frm the Residence Life team poses with a variety of the bird, bee and bat boxes he builds.

His most popular design is favoured by chickadees, house wrens and nuthatches. Another much larger model is well suited to flickers and downy woodpeckers, and another makes fine shelter for mountain bluebirds and tree swallows.

As for birds that don’t nest in cavities, he also builds nesting platforms, suited to robins and blue jays.

It’s a hobby that turned into a home business one year ago that brings together the key interests of Tom and his wife Marianne, both Lethbridge College alumni. Tom (Business Administration 2010) was looking for a business idea. Marianne (Criminal Justice 2006) has more than a decade of experience in environmental education having spent 10 years at the Birds of Prey Centre in Coaldale and the last four years at Helen Schuler Nature Centre in Lethbridge.

“My wife is the driving force behind the science,” Tom says. “Some birdhouses are decorative, but they won’t provide a suitable home for birds. Our houses are decorative for backyards, but they’re also functional. Every little aspect of the birdhouse was designed to accommodate the right species and to provide a good environment.”

A woman holds a bald eagle
Marianne Virag holds one of the eagles from the Birds of Prey Centre. For every bird box sold, the Virags donate $2 to the centre.

The most popular design is a pitched-roof abode with a front opening just 1 1/8 inches across (about 28 millimetres or a hair bigger than a toonie), a perfect spot for chickadees, house wrens and nuthatches, all petite birds native to the area. If the opening was just an eighth of an inch larger, the invasive house sparrow might move in.

Both Marianne and Tom contribute to the birdhouses’ decorative flare. Marianne is the artist whose custom painting can reflect something of the human host’s personality. The boxes might bear floral designs, or a storm trooper proved popular. Tom is experimenting with shou sugi ban, a Japanese technique for charring wood that showcases the wood grain and provides waterproofing. Whatever the design on the outside, the materials – all featuring low volatile organic compounds – are determined by the needs of the intended inhabitants.

“Each product we sell comes with a comprehensive guide on how to attract the birds, how to care for the bird house, so there’s no guesswork.”

The houses come with a hinged side so you can open it in late fall after the nestlings have flown the coop, clean the box and add fresh wood chips to help keep birds warm during cold spells and storms. Birds use the boxes primarily for nesting. The rest of the year, they are only occasional visitors taking shelter from bad weather.

Even with all of Marianne’s research into bird habitat, Tom had his doubts.

“When we first started building them, I’m like ‘There’s no way a bird will fit through this. It’s so tiny. There’s no way they can fly in.’ But we now have pictures and videos people have sent to us that they do, indeed, fit in really, really well.