Their attractions include exposed beams, thatched roofs, reclaimed barn boards and baked clay tiles. No double glazing, though, and living tends to be open plan, but there are the communal gardens and - unless there is a squabble over vacant possession - the transaction is usually chain-free. Rosalind Russell takes a peek at bird houses.

Houses for birds, it seems, are every bit as des res as our own. And their potential owners are no less picky than people when it comes to finding exactly the right style, position and facilities.

House-hunting swifts, says the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, fly past a likely nest site brushing the entrance with their wings. Any incumbent responds by screaming vigorously and grappling with its feet until the intruder is ejected. Tits will happily nest next to robins or wrens, but not next to another pair of tits.

Problems with the neighbours are not confined to homo sapiens. As a result, the number and varying design of bird houses to suit all tastes - avian and humans - is remarkable. Whether your home is a Victorian villa or a period thatched cottage, you'll find an annexe for your feathered lodgers that won't upset the planning officer.

The mail order company Presents Direct sells a bird house in kit form, consisting of real miniature bricks and roofing tiles made of baked clay, and with enough mortar to build it, for pounds 24.95 (plus p&p). Just the job for a builder twiddling his thumbs with nothing to do after the New Year when the weather is atrocious.

The Shaker Shop (there are two stores in London and a mail order service) offers folk art bird houses and feeders, made by hand from old materials, including barn boards and tin, collected from farms in Pennsylvania.

The paint finish is aged to give the houses character, although it's unlikely even the most difficult to please bird is going to give a hoot. They are in limited editions and therefore not going cheap. The gazebo bird feeder is pounds 149.95 and the turret house, with several front doors, is pounds 149.95. A more modest little white house is pounds 36.95 and there is a matching restaurant, for days when they just have to eat out, at pounds 29.95.

The RSPB has several pages of houses and feeders in its current catalogue. A plastic, thatch-look cottage bird feeder is the most popular, costing pounds 24.99, but there are nest boxes to suit almost everybody, including house martins.

Designed especially for them, and costing pounds 15.99, the house martin nest has to be installed permanently under the eaves of a house (preferably painted white or cream, they are quite particular about architectural finishes). The idea is to encourage other pairs to build their own nearby, but house martins are as fussy about their wattle and daub as English Heritage. Any old mud will not do. And, as each nest needs a thousand beakfuls of the stuff, a ready supply must be within 200 metres.

CJ Wildbird Foods near Shrewsbury sell a mud pack for martins, consisting of a green tray, a bottle of blue dye and 3kg of mud (pounds 7.99). All you have to do is keep it wet. The dye is added to the mud to make it easier to spot the new building site.

Forsham Cottage Arks in Ashford Kent make bird houses to suit everything from two turtle doves to six geese a-laying. Some, including the Tenterden which has four floors, housing 20 pairs of birds, come into the stately home class of property. Not for the suburban garden, they point out, possibly unnecessarily, as it costs pounds 1,411, delivered but not erected.

Slightly cheaper is the thatched Lamberhurst, pounds 987.60 in white, pounds 897.60 in brown. These cotes are sent to a master thatcher to be thatched. Even an Oriental garden can be accommodated: the Willow, painted red, green or blue, has a pagoda-style roof and costs pounds 728.90 including delivery (less if you collect it yourself).

For tits bringing up their families by the seaside, the red, blue and white painted beacon house from the Maritime Company is one of the most charming B&Bs. The solid wood, 12-inch high bird box, in the shape of a lighthouse costs pounds 14.95, plus p&p.

For the RSPB gift brochure call 01283 506100 (for leaflets on different nest boxes, 01767 680551); Presents Direct, 0171-371 7017; Shaker 25 Harcourt Street, London W1H 1DT, 0171-724 7672, and at 322 Kings Road, SW3 5DU; CJ Wildbird Foods 01743 709545; Forsham Cottage Arks 01233 820229; Maritime Company 01993 770450.