There is an air traffic control tower. A red radar screen with three antennas, for incoming, outgoing and gate traffic. A storage building for radar equipment. An instrument landing system (ILS). A windsock.
With its intricate detail and authentic signage, the arrangement looks pretty much like what you’d see at an airport. Except that it’s only 5 feet wide and 2 feet tall, and it’s in Bill Stibal’s backyard in Burnsville.
That, and it has two little holes, designed for use by wrens. The structure is an elaborate birdhouse.
“I know my stuff,” said Stibal, whose job selling industrial supplies frequently takes him out to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “I just do this all for spoof.”
He likes to carry through on the joke, pointing to the ILS that “helps the birds glide in at the right altitude if they’re going on autopilot.” A nearby sign that reads “landing approach area” is there “to warn anybody walking by here that there’s low-flying birds.”
The project started because of a blue jay problem. Last year, the aggressive birds ruined Stibal’s (ordinary style) birdhouse by standing on the perch and leaning in to grab eggs from the nest.
To put a stop to that, Stibal did some research and learned that wrens do not require perches on their houses.
Meanwhile, he had a tall stump in the corner of his yard, remnants of a tree that had started to grow out over the swimming pool. He had tried putting an ordinary birdhouse on top of it, but it didn’t look right.
“I wanted to do something different, that no one had ever thought of,” Stibal said.
Maybe he was musing over the problem on one of his drives out to the airport. In any case, next thing you know he was constructing the air traffic tower. He installed it in the yard in March.
The structures are as close to authentic as he could make them using wood and other odds and ends. His sister made stained-glass windows for around the tower. Behind the glass are two tiny air traffic controllers and their supervisor — formerly little toy soldiers. He can turn on lights at the top of the tower “to make it an all-weather tower.” The runways are labeled 12L and 12R (runway 12, left and right). A sign that says “Elev 948 ft” reflects the tower’s exact elevation above sea level.
“I show [photos] to anybody at the airport, and I’m instantly their friend,” Stibal said.
The only thing missing, at least at the moment, are planes — er, wrens.
Wrens did live there earlier this year, moving in around Mother’s Day, Stibal said. They built a nest inside, zooming in and out of the tower’s two three-quarter-inch holes; though the holes look too small for a hummingbird to squeeze through, they apparently accommodate a wren at full-speed flight.
“They dive bomb right through it,” Stibal said.
According to Stibal’s research, some wrens fly up from Central America. “So these are international flights,” he joked.
In quick succession, the birds laid eggs, the eggs hatched, the babies fledged. By July 1, the whole family had moved out. Stibal is hoping birds show up again next year, but he won’t know until they do.
Friends have asked him to make similar birdhouses for them, a request he has declined because it’s too time-consuming. But he does like showing acquaintances the photos and talking about the place.
Somewhere, maybe a family of wrens is doing the same.