Meet Old Orchard Beach’s Renegade Birdhouse Guy

To build the quirkily expressive birdhouses that hang all over town, Claude Ouellet wings it with whatever materials he has handy.

Claude Ouellet, also known around Old Orchard Beach as Frenchy or Birdman
“Birdman” (as Claude Ouellet is known around town) in his basement workshop.
By Sara Anne Donnelly
Photos by Tara Rice
From our April 2024 Home & Garden issue

Throughout the town of Old Orchard Beach, cartoonishly anthropomorphic birdhouses peek out from behind branches or hang willy-nilly from roadside trunks. Some have jagged strips of wood for faces, others mismatched bottle-cap eyes, maybe an old metal dustpan as a hat, or a fan brush poking out, cigar-like, below the rough-cut hole that lends each one an air of Vaudevillian surprise. All of these odd creations are the work of Claude Ouellet, also known around town as Frenchy or Birdman. On his property in Old Orchard Beach, where he’s lived since 2008, Ouellet has more than two dozen of his rustic avian abodes posted about. One recent afternoon, he pointed to a birdhouse on an oak tree, with a blue plastic Easter egg for a nose and a mouth made of used dentures. “That one has my mother-in-law’s chompers,” he said. “In memory of her.”

Ouellet’s inspiration traces back to the Yarmouth Clam Festival. While wandering the fair’s craft booths in 2010, he noticed a few birdhouses made of recycled materials. And after retiring from a career as a drywaller in Boston, he had needed a way to stay out of his wife’s hair. “So I started making one, then I made another one,” he said. “It snowballed from there.” By his count, he’s since made around 400 birdhouses, using donated wood and objects, trash, yard-sale finds, and other materials he scavenges from his house. Now, Ouellet can crank out as many as 10 a day using whatever’s on hand, or whatever can be snuck to his basement workshop without his wife noticing. His artistic process is simple: “I come down, I turn on the music, maybe have a couple beers, and just start making them.” If the local paint store has discounted mistints, he might gussy the birdhouse in, say, pink, red, or aqua blue, but most of them are otherwise so natural they’re sent out into the world with sawdust on their cheeks.

He stealthily affixes his works to trees in well-trodden public places — the local fire and police stations, for instance, or a community ballfield — climbing his ladder under cover of darkness, with his screwdriver in a holster and the door to his truck left open in case he needs to make a quick escape. A few people — who don’t like birds, he figures — have yelled at him to leave their trees alone. But for the most part, the birdhouses stay up. And Ouellet has extended his range over the years — some of his pieces can be found elsewhere around southern and central Maine, in New Hampshire, and as far away as Florida, where he has relatives. In just his first winter, he had produced so many birdhouses his wife worried they were becoming a fire hazard, so that spring, he laid some out on his lawn and people came and took ones they liked. He’s kept up the ritual ever since, making dozens every winter and giving away extras to passersby in the spring and summer. “Never charged a penny,” he said.

Don’t look so surprised — Ouellet can use just about any odd bits of trash to make one of his charismatic birdhouses.

As he chatted, Ouellet tinkered with a new birdhouse sporting a helmet like the ones worn by World War I doughboys, but made of his wife’s sawn-in-half stockpot (“Good thing I don’t cook,” she said when he told her). A broken snow-shovel handle made for its nose. Ouellet ignored questions about any deeper creative muses, showing little interest in that type of reflection. He did, however, briefly mention his late father, a Depression-era drywaller who, in one of Ouellet’s earliest memories, taught him to hammer bent nails straight again. “You don’t throw nothing away. You recycle it, reuse it,” he said. “I see a lot of guys throw stuff away. So I’ll pick it up. I’ll make something out of it. I don’t know what, but I will.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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