Like most of us, Jerry Abel found himself bored and uninspired during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, so he started a hobby of building birdhouses and got unexpected results — his spirits not only lifted, they soared.
"It was boring — there wasn’t much to do," the 89-year-old Woodbury resident said of having to hang around the apartment he shares with his wife, Harriet, 80. "My son-in-law and my daughter have a friend in Holmdel, New Jersey, and they had lots of different birdhouses in their backyard, so after visiting them, my daughter asked me if I could build a birdhouse."
At first, Abel couldn’t see it. He retired from teaching biology at Bayside High School in Queens and was a basketball coach, and he had never worked with wood in his life. He had never owned a birdhouse, much less built one. You might say he thought the idea was for the birds — until he decided to go to the library and get a "blueprint" for how to build a birdhouse.
"I wasn’t a carpenter. I was into sports," explained Abel, who has two daughters, three granddaughters and a grandson. He was good at basketball while attending Eastern District High School in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up, and he had owned a day camp, Campus Day, in Old Westbury.
No one else in his family had worked with wood, either, noted Abel, whose father had manufactured ladies hats. But once Abel got wood, paint and other materials together, his imagination took off. He found himself building one birdhouse after another birdhouse until he had built a total of seven, gifting them to family members with themes that reflected each recipient’s interests.
Abel got the idea to continue the themes on the insides of the tiny houses. A peek inside shows vignettes, some of which include wood figures with the faces bearing a photograph of the person the birdhouse was built for, as well as various items and decorations that capture the theme. Each creation took anywhere from a week to 10 days to make.
He hasn’t made one for himself or his wife, however, and doesn’t plan to. When asked why, he says, "Shoemakers don’t make shoes for themselves."
Abel said he’s content making other people happy with their new bird homes.
'Each different and unique'
"The first one I built was ‘Scott’s Hole in One’ for my son-in-law, then the second was for my daughter, who’s a tennis player; then I built one for my grandchild, Carly, a speech pathologist in a school in New York City.
"Then I built one for the other granddaughter who loves baking — Zoe — I made a kitchen inside a birdhouse."
Abel said he couldn’t believe how involved he became in planning each birdhouse, looking forward to making each one tell a different story.
"I said, ‘This is becoming very interesting,’ " Abel added. "I was able to use my imagination and do things my own way with each having a theme. It’s so involved. For Zoe’s I made pots; I made cooking utensils … Each [birdhouse] is different and unique."
For a pair of golf enthusiasts in the family, daughter Allyson and her husband, Steven, both 55, who live in London, Abel made figures of the couple playing golf in a scene complete with a fairway.
Allyson and Steven’s son, Josh, 17, likes to play basketball like his grandfather, so his birdhouse includes Josh dribbling the ball surrounded by a small mural of cheering fans.
"Just looking at them and thinking of him brings him across the ocean with us," Allyson said of her father’s birdhouses. She noted that she became interested in bird watching during the pandemic as something relaxing to do, and the bird house draws her attention outside, where winged visitors have included house sparrows, blue and great tits, and robins.
"I spent so much time working from my kitchen and seeing the birds brought me so much joy," she explained.
Abel said that making the birdhouses brought him joy in ways he didn’t expect.
"What’s been great for me personally about this is keeping my mind active and thinking of different things," Abel said.
For the roofs, "Real house shingles were used, which is very hard. I used a hair dryer to loosen the tar so I was able to shape the roofs."
Elsewhere, he added "odds and ends, and all kinds of things."
Mementos of a lifetime
Abel’s work area is in the basement of the nearby home of his daughter, Shari Saunders, 60. She’s the tennis-playing daughter who gave her father the idea to make a birdhouse.
She said she couldn’t believe how her father ended up embracing her suggestion.
"I loved his enthusiasm for what he was doing," Saunders said. "The love he had for each bird house just came through — he paid attention to every detail … I love his creativity."
Harriet Abel said the birdhouses seem to be the gifts that keep on giving.
"It gave my husband much more time with my daughter with him working at her house," Harriet said. "We’re all so happy about the delight this whole thing has given him."
Abel fashioned his "final" birdhouse for a close cousin, Amy Paston, 53, who also lives in Woodbury. She’s an interior designer, so Abel came up with his own brand of styling for her birdhouse.
Fabric samples and miniature rolls of carpeting help represent Paston's tools of her trade, and her birdhouse is the widest and closely resembles a room in a dollhouse. She treats her gift as a piece of art instead of letting birds use it, with plans to alternate between displaying it in her garden and giving it a place of honor atop a bookshelf in her great room.
"I don’t want anything happening to it," Paston said. "It will forever be a fabulous accessory for my home."
Is Abel certain that was the last birdhouse he will make? Yes. He said he only intended to make them for family — and there are no more family members left.
"I’ve exhausted my family," he chuckled. "It [building birdhouses] occupied my time for the year of COVID and stimulated my brain — that’s what I liked about teaching."
Abel added that he also feels he has accomplished his goal of giving something to each family member to remember him by.
"When people get older, their grandparents usually give them something like jewelry or pottery," Abel said. "My memory is these birdhouses."
Birdhouses by the book
Want to learn how to build your own birdhouse? Here are some books to get you started:
“Audubon Birdhouse Book,” by Margaret A. Barker and Ellisa Wolfson (Voyageur Press, 2013)
“Birdhouses, Boxes & Feeders for the Backyard Hobbyist,” by Alan Bridgewater and Gail Bridgewater (Fox Chapel Publishing Co., 2017)
“Bird House Make and Makeover,” by Alan Goodsell (Guild of Master Craftsman, 2019)
“Natural Birdhouses,” by Maria Fisher (Skyhorse, 2015)
“Easy Birdhouses & Birdhouses,” by Michael Berger (Cool Springs Press, 2014)
“Handmade Birdhouses and Feeders,” by Michele McKee Orsini (Ryland Peters & Small, 2017)