Local man may be reign­ing ‘Birdhouse King’

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ staff Mitch Erceg sands what will be the roof of one of his “luxury birdhouses” in his garage in his Edison home. Erceg can be found working in his home studio eight to 10 hours a day,    listening to bluegrass or NPR while he works.PHOTOS BY JERRY WOLKOWITZ staff Mitch Erceg sands what will be the roof of one of his “luxury birdhouses” in his garage in his Edison home. Erceg can be found working in his home studio eight to 10 hours a day, listening to bluegrass or NPR while he works.

On quiet Christie Street in Edison sits a house enveloped by trees. Look a little closer and one can see that on a lot of the trees, most of them in fact, birdhouses hang. There are also bird feeders, bird baths and, of course, birds.

One may be inclined to think a collector lives here, and one does. Mitch Erceg, the owner of this house, fancies himself "The Birdhouse King."

But Erceg is not the king of birdhouses because he owns so many, but because he makes them, too.

Erceg said he has made birdhouses his whole life but began making them full time when he retired in 1988.

"I always liked birds since I was a little kid," Erceg, now 81, said. "I just gravitated toward [making birdhouses] naturally. I had all the tools; I had the lumber."

Erceg has been a carpenter his whole life. The garage he builds birdhouses in, along with the rest of the house, he built himself in 1950 after he married his Woodbridge High School sweetheart Norma. The place still smells of wood and lacquer.

"Any woman who wants to have a happy life should marry a carpenter," Norma Erceg said. "When you marry a carpenter, his skin is always beautiful, muscles are always toned, and they never get sick.

"Carpenters can make anything," she continued, pointing to a clock hanging on the wall. "See that clock? Mitch made that clock. When he completed it, my daughter asked why there’s two number 12’s in it," she said.

Inside the glass, there are indeed, two Roman numeral 12’s, but no number 11.

"That’s what happens when an artist gets too inside his own work," the birdhouse king’s wife said.

Every day, Erceg gets inside his work but in a good way.

Erceg explains what a normal day consists of for him and Norma.

"We have breakfast to start the day, then we play a game of 500 Rummy, then I come out here and go to work," he said. "Then she," Erceg points to the living room where his wife is sitting, "reads all the newspapers.

"I’ll do this for at least eight hours, but closer to 10 or 12, till the ball game comes on, especially if the Mets are playing in L.A."

But, Erceg said, making birdhouses is hardly work.

"Even my real work wasn’t work," he said. Erceg, before he retired, was a superintendent of Mohawk Construction Co., Linden.

"I’m a carpenter by trade; my father was a carpenter, too," he said.

"Mitch’s father was also a bird enthusiast," Norma said. "Mitch has always been interested in birds. When we got married, we got a bird book, and every time we saw a different bird, we’d put it in the book. We have a 55-year record, and we still have that."

Although he spent a lifetime enjoying birds and even making the random birdhouse, it was not until he retired that Erceg began making the "luxury" birdhouses he makes today.

Using a hollowed-out trunk for the base, which he actually creates by peeling an inch off the trunk with a band-saw, then gluing the ends together, Erceg takes foot-long pieces of wedged wood, so it actually has a slope, to make the roof. He then decorates the rest of the house with little accents, all of which come from trees, such as eucalyptus pods, sliced macadamia nuts, or thika pods, which grow in tropical climates — they actually look like pine cones made out of wood that Erceg may have stained a lush burnt-orange color. But they’re not, they grow that way, or as Erceg likes to say of anything natural with a high aesthetic value, "God made this."

The wood Erceg uses on his birdhouses can be found as close as his back yard ("Someone’s always cutting a tree down in New Jersey," Norma Erceg said), or as far away as Africa or Australia.

From a dealer in Sayreville, Erceg has bought at least 30 types of wood from all over the world — a light, spotted lacewood from Australia, dark woods like the king wood from Mexico or wenge from Kenya; pink ivory from Mozambique; or the orange padauk wood from Cameroon. All the color in Erceg’s birdhouses is natural.

"I just lacquer it so it will retain its color for a little while," he said.

Erceg also likes to say he doesn’t plan anything when he begins a birdhouse, he just begins, usually while listening to bluegrass or NPR on the radio.

"It all comes from the head," Erceg said pointing to his capped skull.

But there is one part of every birdhouse that is planned — every birdhouse has a little butterfly on it, a tribute, Erceg said, to honor his mother.

"That’s for my mother. She loved butterflies," he said. "Every time I put one on there, I think of my mother."

Once they’re complete, Erceg takes his birdhouses to craft fairs, where he sells them for $200 to $300 each.

"We use the money to pay our taxes," he said. "We built this house for $7,000. Now our taxes are $9,000. So we sell birdhouses so we can pay taxes."

Erceg has been written up in trade magazines and the Ladies’ Home Journal for his work. Some famous people own his birdhouses, too.

"George Bush senior has one. He has the eucalyptus pods on his. I don’t like them though — not the pods, the Bushes," Erceg said.

An Erceg birdhouse was also featured in the front window at the Atlanta Tiffany’s, after Erceg donated his cre­ations to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.

Last Sunday, a lot of birds were visit­ing some of Erceg’s birdhouses.

"That sounds like a sparrow," Erceg said listening to one bird’s song. "There he is; see that’s his house. It’s not very exciting, bird watching. It’s not like ski­ing down Mount Everest. It’s good enough for me though."

Soon after, Erceg spotted a squirrel around one of his bird feeders.

"There’s a squirrel coming for a snack," he said. "I’m not too happy with him, he scares the birds away.

"I got birds all over here," Erceg said. "It’s not just talk, we really are for the birds."