Working for the birds

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Birdhouse maker John Ellis sells his wares at Ava’s Grower’s Market.

AVA – For more than two decades, John Ellis has worked to end homelessness in the Ozarks. The 82-year-old spends months each year building unique, and brightly colored, one-room abodes. But while the dwellings aren’t large, they are loved — both by humans, and the birds that call them home.

Ellis is Ava’s Birdhouse Man. He’s a familiar face at the town’s Grower’s Market, where he sells his wares every single Saturday from the bed of his red pickup truck.

“Well, I done it for my own purposes to start with,” says Ellis on a recent Saturday morning. “I made birdhouses and put them up in the yard.”

That yard is found at his 100-acre farm near Rockbridge, a defunct town turned trout resort, located several miles from Ava. He and his wife moved to the Ozarks around 40 years ago, when they retired and relocated from Iowa. “… She had a lot of relations down (here), and we’d come down here on vacation,” says Ellis. “Ah, I love it down here.”

With around 40 birdhouses and feeders filling his yard, it’s a place that demonstrates the birdhouse maker’s appreciation for feathered friends. “I like feedin’ em,” Ellis says — especially bluebirds, which are “the prettiest little devils you ever saw.”

Several years ago, chatter began to spread about Ellis’ birdhouse-making talent. “Then somebody else wanted some, so I made them a few and I just kept a’doin’ it,” says Ellis — something he’s been doing now for more than 20 years.

Ellis designs all of his birdhouses himself. There are ones that look like log cabins, while others sport swooped roofs. Each one is constructed by Ellis, who cuts out enough pieces for 15 or 20 houses at a time. “… Then when I go out, it takes me about 15 minutes to make one of ‘em,” he says.

Many are decorated with painted-on windows. All are brightly colored, dressed in cheery shades of blue, yellow, red, brown and green. But their colors can present a conundrum, says Ellis.

“The color is getting to be what’s a bugger ’cause I’ve painted them so many colors that it’s hard to come up with a good color,” he says. In this case, “good” means one that birds best respond to. He does, however, say a couple stand out from the rest. “They seem to go for that yellow and blue,” he says.

The houses generally come in two sizes. “I get $10 for the log cabins, and I get $5 for these,” says Ellis, motioning to the smaller houses. “And if somebody ain’t got the money, I’ll give ‘em one.”

He works for months to prepare for selling season, which for the Ava market runs between April and October. “I had 453 birdhouses when the market started,” says Ellis. “And that’s what I got left.”

He points to the back of his truck, and the painted homes that adorn it. When compared to the season’s start, few remain — and Ellis says that they may be it before he calls it quits for good. He’s not planning on making any more.

His next-door neighbors at the market, however, aren’t too convinced that these are the last.

“He keeps saying he’s gonna quit,” kids Elaine Clouse, who has sold her homemade sweet spreads next to Ellis for more than four years at the market. “We get tickled. He says that every year. Every year, he’s gonna quit.”

But the “good fellow,” as Clouse calls him, keeps coming back. It’s likely because of the birds. However, perhaps it’s partly for himself — especially after Ellis’ wife passed away five years ago following 63 years of marriage.

“I don’t know, it just gives me something to do,” he says of the birdhouses. “Now I’m there alone, you know.

“I don’t know really what I’ll do if I ain’t makin’ these.”

Want to buy a birdhouse?

Ava’s Grower’s Market convenes every Saturday from 7 a.m. – 12 p.m. Birdhouses can also be purchased at other times from Ellis by calling 417-683-6185.