Sally Sivrais likes to joke that she’s a realtor of sorts.
The little songbirds, who benefit from her work, would likely vouch for that.
Sivrais, a longtime U-M employee, who currently serves as research administrator senior manager in the Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Department in the Medical School, has built, decorated and sold hundreds of birdhouses at farmer’s markets and craft shows over the past 12 years.
Her crafting combines a lifelong love of birds and small stones, and satisfies an innate need to keep her hands moving, as well as offers opportunities for human contact.
“When I was at the (Stephen M. Ross School of Business from 2003-12), I was mostly only communicating with faculty online. I like people and I like talking to people, so I decided I would find something to do so I could talk to people. I came up with making birdhouses out of Great Lakes stones,” said Sivrais, who started her career at U-M in 1984.
“I like birds. I’ve always had a birdfeeder and a birdhouse, and I’ve always liked picking up pretty little stones off of Lake Michigan. It makes a good combination.”
Those pretty little stones are really the stars of Sivrais’ birdhouses, which are built for house finches, wrens, sparrows and chickadees.
She buys kits from craft stores, builds and paints the birdhouses, then applies dozens of small, stones to them in a purposeful manner based on the stones’ size and color. She applies the stones using Loctite and a Black and Decker battery-operated caulk gun, and when dry makes the stones shine with lacquer.
Sivrais said over many years she’s collected buckets of small stones, mostly along Lake Michigan, but also along Lake Superior. Sivrais and her brother Larry Sivrais have spent countless hours scouring the beaches for stones, usually in early spring when the ice was receding. They took care to only pick rocks and stones from beaches where it was legally allowed.
The trips provided a nice bonding experience for Sivrais, who was adopted at birth and found her birth family — all six siblings — when she was 38.
“My brother and I discovered that we both liked picking stones off the waterfront. That was really cool,” she said.
She did not make or sell any birdhouses in 2019 due to her brother’s extended illness, and the pandemic kept her from doing so last year.
She has started building again and has resumed working on previously unfinished birdhouses in preparation for the upcoming Ann Arbor Artisan Market, which is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays in Kerrytown.
“It feels good to get back into the creation of them after a two-year break,” said Sivrais.
She’ll likely not require any stone-gathering trips for this year’s collection — or for the next several years, if she chooses. Sivrais estimates she puts more than 50 stones on each birdhouse, and some get closer to 100.
“I’ve got a couple trash cans full of stones and a big table on my deck that’s full of stones, buckets here and buckets there,” she said.
She figures since 2009, when she started, that she’s built about 500 birdhouses, weighing about 5 pounds apiece. Each one takes about four hours from start to finish, and each features a unique trademark: a singular Petoskey stone placed on the front. Sometimes it serves as the doorknob, other times a decoration above the door.
“Some people walking by (at markets) who see the birdhouses, have never seen or have a clue what a Petoskey stone is,” Sivrais said of Michigan’s state stone. “I have hundreds of Petoskey stones in all sorts of sizes.”
In addition to the Petoskey stone, Sivrais makes other adaptations to the typical birdhouse. She drills holes in either side of the birdhouse so an owner could thread a clothes hanger through it and hang it from a shepherd’s hook. She also drills a large hole in the bottom and includes a plug to ease cleaning in case the birdhouse is used for its intended purpose.
Sivrais figures about half of the birdhouses she’s sold over the years have never been placed outside and are at homes of collectors. Through conversations with buyers, she’s learned some of her birdhouses have made it to Mexico, Canada, China and the United Kingdom.
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“It’s nice that people who moved away can have a little something of Michigan in their new home,” she said. “They’re all over the place.”
Sivrais has kept only five of the birdhouses she’s made, and those are decorated with hard-to-find agates and heart-shaped stones that she’s come across.
She can trace her craftiness to her younger days when her mother would always have some sort of craft for the children to do. She recalls in first or second grade being a “distraction” to her classmates as she always had to keep her hands busy doing something.
That restlessness eventually led to her birdhouse creations, and the results speak for themselves.
“Usually when you go to an art market, they make sure there’s only one type of product there,” she said. “We did a show ‘up north’ and we were one of four selling birdhouses. People would come back and say ours were really special, due to the colors and rock placement. I feel like I have created them, but the beauty of the stones is God’s work.
“I’m just glad I have lots of stones and lots more imagination and creativity in me to get these back out to people. And I’ll wear my mask and talk loud over the table at the Artisan Market.”