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From Barn to Birdhouse

The small southern Illinois town of Olney is known far and wide for its albino squirrels. It’s all about the birds for local woodworking artisan Scott McDowell. 

A physical therapist assistant by trade, McDowell found his avocation as an avian architect. For years, family and friends nudged him to sell the quaint birdhouses he created in his free time. In 1991, he transformed his hobby (and barn) into a business – and Nature Creations took flight. 

“A birdhouse gives the landscape a focal point,” says McDowell, noting that bird feeding and gardening rank among the most popular hobbies in America. “That is our business right there.” 

Today, he and a team of about a half-dozen employees hand-make more than 10,000 birdhouses every year, bringing to life designs dreamed up by McDowell. All of his creations are grounded in a rustic, avian Americana aesthetic.

Reclaimed wood

A history buff, McDowell finds inspiration in the Land of Lincoln’s historic buildings, from grain towers to water mills. In fact, many old barns and buildings find new life as Nature Creations birdhouses.  

“We use a lot of reclaimed wood. From the beginning, I’ve liked the distressed look, so we started reclaiming old barns and buildings in southern Illinois,” says McDowell. “In our area, people know I do that and let us know when a building is going to be torn down.”

McDowell has also mastered techniques to mimic the effects of time, from sanding and staining to creating his own rust. 

When he’s not in his workshop, you may find McDowell at a farm auction sifting through salvaged materials he can transform into unique accents. Where others simply see tattered tin or a rusted hinge, he sees potential. 

“I search for objects that offer something unique,” says McDowell. “I don’t want anything shiny on our birdhouses. I like a time-worn look.”

New designs

Today, Nature Creations produces about 50 different styles of folk art birdhouses that captivate customers across the U.S. and as far north as Canada. The collection includes country church birdhouses and one-room schoolhouses. The popular barn quilt trend inspired a new design that will debut in spring 2019. 

“We add two new styles to our inventory every year to keep things fresh,” says McDowell. “We plan ahead and watch color trends. I like something that has some dimension to it, so I play around with shapes a lot.” 

McDowell particularly enjoys building the most rustic styles, some of which resemble miniature log cabins bedecked with moss and twisted twigs.

“I like to put them together. They have a lot of unique parts, and I can get pretty creative with them.” 

Let the birds in

Ironically, many customers are so charmed by McDowell’s creations that their birdhouses never make it to the garden, nesting instead in an interior landscape.

As delightful as the birdhouses are to behold, McDowell is passionate about producing fully functional products. He puts great care into designing homes for different types of birds, considering factors such as drainage, airflow, and entrance size. All of his birdhouses can be easily cleaned out.

“We make a lot of birdhouses, and all are functional and durable,” he says. “I always want my birdhouses to be unique and useful.” 

Those very qualities make this wholesale business a favorite among bird stores and garden centers across the country. Nature Creations has even produced special orders for national brands like Crate & Barrel and Home Goods. 

“The uniqueness of their birdhouses appeals to us. They’re handmade. They’re not coming off an assembly line,” says Bob Niestradt, owner of Niestradt Landscaping in Shelbyville, Illinois, a customer of Nature Creations for well over a decade.

“The paint and the metal products hold up very well. We also like that they reuse materials like tin pieces and barbed wire,” he says. 

Most popular

The country school birdhouse is one of the most popular at Niestradt Landscaping. “The barn style is appealing, too. It’s a nice fit for our area,” says Niestradt. “As a small, independent business, it’s nice to be able to work with another small, independent business.”

No one is more surprised than McDowell that his one-time hobby gave wings to a business that promises to span generations. 

“I love my business. It’s kind of a family business now,” says McDowell. His wife, Connie, and sons, Coen and Cade, are actively involved with Nature Creations. “I’m very proud of what it’s grown into. I never expected that.”

Considering Americans’ persistent passion for backyard birding and gardening, the sky’s the limit for Nature Creations. It seems McDowell’s motto is shared by many: “You can never have too many birdhouses.”

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