Extreme Makeover: Birdhouse Edition

Portland’s annual design competition combines whimsy and function with all-out wonkiness.

From the Eye of Sauron to presidential candidates, no muse is too outlandish for this birdhouse competition. For the past four years, WeMake, a creative non-profit that funds community-based projects, has welcomed artists of all breeds from around the world to put forth their finest birdhouse creations during the city's Design Week, uniting Oregonians’ notorious knack for artistry with their affinity to nature.

The contest, which wrapped up on April 19, was divided into five coveted titles: Best in Show, Most Functional, Over-the-Top, Craziest Contraption, and Best Use of Color—each winner taking home a playfully-suited prize. Previously, “Designing for the Birds,” has received about 100 entries each year; but for this go-around it was downsized to just 36, says WeMake’s founder and director Yvonne Perez Emerson.

Best in Show, or “The Birdy Dream House Award,” went—for the third year in a row—to local designer Eric Delph. His cherrywood and copper triangular hut challenges traditional ideas of house-to-tree birdhouse support. “It’s roughly based on an Ellis clamp,” Delph says, “which is used in construction to pin two elements together using a metal structure.” In his case, the middle structure is a tree trunk, and the opposing elements are two birdhouses whose converging forces keep the entire piece in place. Delph designed one of the sides as an open-plan home for tree and shrub nesters like local jays. The other is a small, confined space for cavity nesters like Chestnut-backed Chickadees, nuthatches, or Downy Woodpeckers.  

“Ultimately, the clean design is what made Delph’s stand out,” says second-year judge and Portland Audubon Development Director Ann Takamoto.

The rest of the panel included illustrator Rilla Alexande, artist Joseph Clifford Blanchette, designer Eric Hillerns, and The Right Brain Initiative’s Rebecca Brurrell—all proud Portlanders. Takamoto holds an art degree from the University of Illinois, and is well acquainted with the city’s avian life. “I was considered the birdhouse expert,” Takamoto says. “My line of work is often a lot fundraising and worrying about the next conservation issue or superfund site, so it’s nice to have some whimsy thrown in.”

While Best in Show is probably the most buzz-worthy award, the other winners did not disappoint. Home Sweet Home, which recognizes functionality, went to illustrator Elizabeth Gross’ warmly-painted Western Screech-Owl pad. The award was granted on the basis of appropriate cavity depth for its targeted species, Takamoto says, as well as how easy the structure would be for a person to clean.

Other designs invoked less utility, more wit. “Coming Home” is a ceramic house in the shape of Oregon’s state bird, the Western Meadowlark. It likely won’t be occupied by the species anytime soon though, as meadowlarks make their cup-like nests in depressions in the soil.

Though many of the designs are better suited as decor rather than as homes for Oregon’s some 400 bird species, their proceeds went towards a fantastic human cause. By auctioning off each entry at Portland’s Tillamook Station last month, WeMake raised $2,500 to benefit local arts and education. (Over its four-year span, the competition has raised $40,000 dollars for Portland art programs.) This year, all of the funds went straight to the Right Brain Initiative, a nonprofit that suports art teachers in the city’s kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms.

At the auction, Portland’s hallmark weirdness made a strong appearance. “Groot” by photographer Heather Champ was one example: a tall, minimalistic structure made of tree twigs and branches, plus wool picked off of her goat’s underbelly. And perhaps in response to the famous rally finch, or maybe just because Portlanders really like Bernie Sanders, the senator's face was remade into a “Feel the Berd” house. Designer Dave Hagen assured The Oregonian that he has created it for “every birdregardless of genus or species.”