Bird Haven

Inventive woman creates her own collection over 20 years


If it weren't for the three Victorian-style birdhouses standing tall on Evelyn Kraig's front lawn in Forman, N.D., her unique home would easily blend into the prairies. The Victorian birdhouses, green with spray-painted gold tops, are just three of more than 580 birdhouses scattered about Kraig's yard and home. The best part is she made them all herself.

"Everything here, I made," Kraig says while gazing at the birdhouses and other decorations scattered among the apple trees just about to blossom.

Most of the birdhouses have special names. The first sign visitors notice is "Petite-Coat Junction." There's also "Chetney Corner," which is an actual location just east of Forman, "Nordland Church" and "Roones," which is named after her maiden name. Around the corner and behind the house are "Bird Café," "Bird Resort" and "My House." One birdhouse reads, "For rent if you're a man." And several items have "Evey," Kraig’s nickname, painted on them.

Visitors notice cats' faces, ducks, roosters, parrots and even Mickey Mouse on the birdhouses and other yard decorations. At the top of a post is an airplane whose wings turn with the wind. It says "Forman" on the side in red lettering. There's a wheelbarrow made in 1922 that looks like it was once bright red, but now is more of a salmon pink.

Kraig sighs as she looks around the yard. "They were so pretty when they were new." She repeatedly says the birdhouses need new coats of paint. "Just think how many years they’ve been up." That's more than 20 years. The birdhouses have been up longer than Kraig's late husband, Ancil, has been gone. It was Ancil who built the house Kraig lives in.

"They will be here 'til I go," Kraig said. "I never thought I'd be living until I was 83 in the first place."

The birdhouses attract all kinds of birds, such as robins, sparrows and wrens. Over the years, the birds have developed a special liking for Kraig. They don't fly away when she's around, but they disappear as soon as someone new shows up, she said. Birds have made numerous nests throughout the birdhouses, Kraig says. "They got a house to live in—free rent."

She feeds the birds in hopes that they continue to "rent out" her many birdhouses. Kraig puts millet in the birdhouses for the smaller birds to eat. She also makes her own suet for the birds by squeezing lard and millet into blocks. Large birds and squirrels have slammed into the birdhouses trying to get at the food, knocking off pieces and damaging some of the birdhouses in the process.

The cream cans around the outside of the house are painted with the names of her three grandchildren. She made many of her decorations with them in mind. Her granddaughter, Ashley, spent a lot of time with Kraig from the time she was six weeks old until she went off to college. The name Ashley appears frequently on Kraig's birdhouses and other items. During her time with her grandmother, Ashley helped build and decorate the birdhouses.

At the base of a birdhouse tree is a wooden bear made with Ashley in mind when she was a small child. "She was her shadow," said Linda, Kraig's daughter and Ashley's mother. She lives in the house next door. "They’re pretty close."

Kraig’s birdhouse collection started with a love of working with wood. "It was smaller items at first," Linda said.

The people of Kraig's hometown give her materials and supplies to contribute to her self-made collection. Her neighbors give her old tires, which she paints and places at the base of the birdhouse trees. She even painted laundry detergent bottles that now adorn her picket fence in the front yard.

On May 11, 2003, Kraig completed her 500th birdhouse. That day was special for two other reasons: it was Mother’s Day and her 81st birthday.

For Kraig, imagining in her mind what type of birdhouse to make next was the hardest part of creating her immense collection. However, most of her ideas come straight from her memory. Many of the birdhouses are replicas of houses she has known or places she has been to, such as her old church.

Kraig can make a household decoration out of anything. For example, she took an old paint roller, dipped it in cement, painted it, mounted it on the wall and turned it into a decorative flower holder. "Everything has something hanging on it," she said.

Linda bought a sheet cake for her daughter’s graduation party that was held at Kraig's house, and the bakery requested the sheet underneath the cake back after the party. Linda had to confiscate it from her mother when she discovered she was trying to use it for her birdhouses. "You can’t let anything sit around too long or she’ll make a birdhouse out of it," Linda says. "I wish I had her ambition. She’s pretty active—you can't tell her she can't do it."

Sitting in her kitchen over black coffee and her homemade pudding cake, Kraig gazes out at her birdhouses across the back porch. The photographs and clippings surrounding her reveal much about her life. On one wall, there is an aerial photograph used for the 1889-1989 North Dakota Centennial; a large cluster of birdhouses are clearly visible behind the house.

"At our age, we don't always know if we're coming or going, but we know we've been to hell and back," reads a small plaque on her kitchen wall. Kraig made sure to point it out.

Kraig's husband contributed to her hobby how he could. "My husband, he'd buy anything he could find for my birds," she said. One of those items is a basin the birds bathe in, which is painted with an eagle. "(The birds) love it here," Kraig said. "I take good care of them."