Bluebirds give cheerful meaning to having ‘the ‘blues’

Everybody loves a bluebird. What is it about these cheery little song birds that draws you in? For me it started as a child. To recall my first encounter with a bluebird, we will have to take a trip down Memory Lane. It is one of many treasured memories that I have of my sweet daddy. I was probably around 5- or 6-years-old I would guess, I’m not really sure, but I know I was very young. Daddy was on the tractor in the field and Mama, myself, and some of my siblings were across the dirt road from him in the garden gathering vegetables. Maybe we were picking those dreaded butterbeans, I can’t remember. As Daddy had gone up and down the rows plowing the field, he had noticed a bluebird going back and forth to an old fence post cavity feeding her young. He stopped when he got back to the end of the row near where we were, shut off the tractor, and climbed off. He hollered for me and my sister, Dawn, to come across the road to where he was. As he walked toward the fence, he said, “Ya’ll come here and let me show you something.” With his strong hands, he picked me up, held me close to a hole in the fence post, and told me to look inside. Nestled inside were several baby bluebirds with pinkish skin, bulging eyes and very little sprigs of downy feathers. Their broad yellow beaks were wide open. They were ugly yet adorable. I’m pretty sure that’s when I fell in love with them and as long as I can remember, I have been captivated by them ever since.


When the bluebirds begin checking out the nest boxes in and around my yard, I can’t stay away from my windows. I even have a pair of binoculars that I keep at my fingertips so I can really check them out closely. I keep my camera handy as well. I spend so much time trying to catch that perfect shot. I have spent hours, ready and waiting, to snap the mother or father delivering the great big grasshopper or the nice, juicy caterpillar. I have captured some breathtaking moments by waiting patiently and being perfectly still. I have even had the pleasure numerous times to watch the nest of young as they sit in the entrance hole on the day they are suppose to fledge or leave the nest. I don’t know how they choose who is going to go first. One sticks its head out, goes back in and out, over and over, then one by one they will get up the courage to nervously leap from the nest anticipating reaching the destination of their first flight!


Being able to witness moments like these is priceless, but to actually capture it on camera is as my granddaughter, Katie Dawn says, “so satisfying.” So let’s see if I can get you interested in bluebirds as well.


Bluebirds are only found in North America. There are three different species of bluebirds. The mountain bluebird, the western bluebird and the eastern bluebird. The birds name pretty much tells you where they live. At least one of the three graces every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Newfoundland. The eastern bluebird occupies the eastern two-thirds of the United States, except for extreme southern Florida and southern Canada. The western bluebird’s range picks up where the eastern bluebird’s leaves off and extends westward to the Pacific Coast and south into Mexico. The two overlap in southern Arizona and in the winter the Great Plains and west Texas. Here they sometimes seasonally mingle. The mountain bluebird and the western bluebird, during the summer, share much of the same area. The mountain bluebird occupies high, open areas such as mountain meadows, high hills and plains. The western bluebird prefers open woods and forest edges at lower elevations.


Here in our area, we get to enjoy the eastern bluebird. The color of the male bluebird is stunning. He has a blue back, head, wings, and tail. His belly is white, and he sports a rusty colored breast which extends up over his throat, like a turtle neck. The female, in general, is much more paler and more subtly colored than the male. Because of their beautiful appearance, the bluebird is among most bird lovers favorite bird. No other bird has been featured more often in photos, poetry, and song than this cheerful little guy. They symbolize such happiness and hope. It is no wonder that Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” They have defiantly earned their place in our hearts and as the song says, “the bluebird of happiness.”


In pre-colonial days, the bluebird was quiet scarce, but as pioneers began to settle and clear the forest, plow the fields, and create more open land, they began to thrive. This is the type of habitat they favor. The fields and orchards gave them a large supply of the tasty insects they love. This is why you don’t see bluebirds at your bird feeder. They are not seed eaters. They can, however, be drawn in to eat at feeders if they are offered meal worms. They love meal worms. Bluebirds were a plus to the farmers because they eat worms and insects, including many garden pest, especially grasshoppers. They also eat fruit and berries. Since bluebirds nest in tree cavities, the farmers furnished housing for them by surrounding their fields with cavity-prone wooden fence post. They began to thrive in this ideal habitat and their numbers increased greatly. At the turn of the 20th Century, bluebirds were common in much of rural America.


The story soon changed for the bluebird as during the first half of the last century, the bluebird population plummeted by as much as 90 percent. Their extinction was a real possibility. There were two things that played a major role in this decline. Farmers had begun the practice of pruning back their orchards, removing dead limbs and trees, and removing wooden fence post and replacing them with metal ones. Bluebirds can not excavate their own nest cavities, so they were dependent on abandoned woodpecker holes or either cavities formed by the natural process of decaying trees and the wooden fence post for their survival. Their natural habitat was being destroyed. The use of DDT, along with any other pesticides, was also a factor in their numbers declining. As if this wasn’t enough for them to have to try to overcome, they were also having to compete with aggressive foreign competitors like house sparrows and European starlings. Not only do these competitors take over their nesting sites, they attack and kill adult bluebirds. They have been known to peck out their eyes and literally decapitate them. They will also peck and destroy the eggs in a nest. By the 1950s, it was very rare to see a bluebird.


Buebird expert Lawrence Zeleny’s publication of “The Bluebird: How You Can Help It’s Fight for Survival” in 1976, along with many other articles, books, and programs, served as a wake up call to the public to get involved and same them from extinction. A movement was born and in 1978, Zeleny founded the North American Bluebird Society (NABS). Its goal was to provide information on building and placement of nest boxes, dealing with competing species, and nurturing bluebirds. Due to the efforts of countless bluebird lovers, programs, and organizations as well as books and other printed material, the bluebird population has made an amazing comeback. Today, there are bluebird recovery efforts in almost every state. With so many organizations dedicated to helping humans help bluebirds and the endless websites at your fingertips, if you have an interest in attracting and housing bluebirds, you will not suffer from lack of advice.


Providing nest boxes is the first step in attracting bluebirds to your backyard. There are ready-made birdhouses you can purchase, but not all birdhouses “offer” the essentials to attract and protect the bluebird from predators and the weather. Even though a variety of woods and plywoods can be used to build the nest box as long as they are weatherproof and not pressure treated, I suggest a high-quality durable cedar. If you are going to put the time into building the nest boxes, you want them to last.


To assemble the nest box, you can use screws or nails that are aluminum or galvanized. The entrance hole on the front should be 1.5", and it should be drilled 6" from the floor. Do not attach a perch at the entrance hole. It is not necessary for the bluebird and can actually help predators gain access to the box. Another suggestion to help deter predators is to avoid mounting the nest box on trees or wooden post. It is best to use a metal pole and attach a baffle. This will help keep nestlings and adults safe from climbing predators such as snakes, raccoons, and opossums. To help keep the nest box dry, I suggest a sloped roof with an overhang of 2 to 4" inches on the front and 2" on both sides. This will help keep out a blowing rain. The floor should have 4 drain holes, 3/8 to 1/2" in diameter, to allow any water that may enter to drain away or you can cut away the four corners of the floor. The floor should measure at least 4"x4" and no larger that "x5". A 4"x4" floor will make the internal dimensions spacious enough for the eastern bluebird but small enough to deter house sparrows. Recess the floor at least 1/4" up from the bottom to help keep the nest from getting wet and this will also held the box last longer. The height of a nest box will generally range from 8 to 12" high. The interior wall of the front panel right below the entrance hole should be rough to help the nestlings climb out of the box when it is time to fledge. You can roughen the wood with coarse sandpaper or with something sharp. Make a series of shallow horizontal cuts so the nestlings can grip with their tiny feet to climb out when it is time.


When cutting the back panel, leave a few extra inches at the top and bottom of the board. Pre-drill holes on each end. This will make mounting the nest box easier. On each of the side walls near the top there should be two 5/8” diameter holes for adequate ventilation. There should be a hinged side door to give you access for monitoring your nest box and cleaning it out. A latch or a nail can be used if it keeps the box closed securely until you need to gain access to it. It is not necessary to paint or stain the nest box but if you choose to do so, use a natural or light color. The ideal thing to attach your completed nest box to is a metal pole or a piece of sun-resistant PVC pipe. A piece of 1.75" electrical conduit pipe will work well also. These types of structures help protect nestlings and eggs from rats, snakes, raccoons, and even domestic cats. There are numerous predators that can break up the nest, eat the eggs and the young.


Where you mount your nest box is very important. Make sure you place it in a good bluebird habitat. Even the best made nest box will not attract bluebirds if it is put in the wrong place. Ideal areas are open fields, orchards, pastures, and large lawn areas where the grass is maintained. Bluebirds can spot insects in tall grass at a remarkable distance of more than 50 yards. They hunt insects by scanning the ground from a perch, spotting the insect, swooping down to the ground to get it, and returning quickly back to their perch. They use utility lines, fence post, low branches, shrubs, and young trees. The nest box should be mounted on a pole allowing the entrance hole to be at least 4' but no more than 5' above the ground. The entrance hole should be faced away from prevailing wind and, to avoid direct midday sun, face north to north east. If possible, face it toward a bush, shrub, or young tree within 25 to 100'. This way, when the young leave the nest, they will make their first flight to safety.


It used to be that early return of the bluebird to our area was a sure sign that spring was on the way. They had a reputation as “the trumpets of spring.” Due to climate change, we are now blessed to have their company year-round. Some people take down their nest box during the cold winter months and put them back up in the spring to help preserve the wood. I suggest you leave them up because the bluebird enjoy the nest box for roosting during the winter. It is not unusual for them to pack into it to keep warm. I have seen as many as six bunch up in one box.


It just makes my heart leap with joy when I step outside in mid-February and I hear a bluebird perched atop the highest pine proclaiming in song as if saying, “I am back and looking for a mate.” A male may sing as many as 1,000 songs an hour when trying to attract a mate. That is why my calendar already has been marked with a yellow highlighter on March 10 and a notation that says, “1st nest started in 2020.” God has given us so many wonderful creatures for our enjoyment, and it saddens me to think how many people live in such a fast pace, high-tech world that they miss out on the beauty and fascination of God’s creation. Let me tell you how amazing the courtship of the bluebird really is.


The male will be the first on the scene. He will start searching for several unoccupied cavities or nesting boxes that he considers suitable for his female friend. When he has found them, he will mark his territory. He has been known to place two or three pieces of straw in the nest he has chosen as a way of doing this. He will then perch atop some of the highest treetops and begin to proclaim his presence in song (in the eastern bluebirds’ case, sweet warbles, whistles, and chirps) in varying combinations trying to catch the attention of the female. He flits and flirts from one perch to another with his stunning performance. He will bring her choice morsels to eat and go in and out of each of the nest sights as if to say, “See? Try it!” It takes more than just his melodious display to convince the female that he is worthy. This could go on for as much as a week. It all depends on how “hard to get” she wants to be. This takes patience and determination on his part. She will watch and if he works the magic just right, she will enter the hole and accept his invitation. If she does then the female has accepted the male as her mate and the pair will stay close by the nest until nest building begins. Days and even weeks may pass between the nest selection and actual start of nest building.


Nest building begins with the female doing most of the work while the male looks on, warbling encouragement and flying in to intervene should a predator come by. For this reason, the male bluebird may be seen accompanying her as she gathers nesting material. The nest is a tight woven cup mostly of grass, small plants stems and possibly some pine needles. It is truly a work of art. Nest building may begin in just hours of accepting the site or it could be several days. Once she begins, she may have it completed in as little as two days, but four to five is the norm. After the nest is completed, the female will lay one egg per day until she has laid them all. Bluebird nests usually contain four to five eggs in a clutch. The clutch can range from three to seven, and number of eggs in a clutch is related to the age of the female laying them. The eggs are a solid light blue. The egg is usually laid before mid-morning. To ensure that all the young will hatch at approximately the same time, incubation does not begin until the last egg is laid. The job of incubating the eggs falls completely on the female. For the next two weeks she will only leave her eggs to feed herself. Once incubation begins, the eggs cannot survive being chilled for long periods at the time. Some males have been seen bringing the female food. Incubation can vary anywhere from 13 to 20 days and this is determined by how much time the female is away from the eggs so if the male assist in feeding her it means less incubation time.


Once the eggs begin to hatch, they will all hatch over a period of about a day. Research has found that they usually hatch in the order they were laid.


When the babies hatch, they are naked, blind and hungry. They are ready to be fed right away, so now the male must get busy in the parents' feeding frenzy. It takes both male and female taking turns bringing worms, grasshopper, spiders, and caterpillars to the babies. They must be fed roughly every 15 minutes from dawn to dusk. Since they enter in the world with no feathers, they cannot regulate their body temperature, so the mother may have to brood them if the temperature drops down too cold. These babies totally depend on their parents to feed and protect them. When the hatchlings are about 8 days old, their eyes begin to open. Pin feathers begin appearing within about 10 days after hatching. These babies grow very quicky. They are ready to take their first flight or fledge when they are anywhere from 17 to 21 days old. The young birds are skittish and often have to be coaxed out of their secure home by their parents. They will fly around the nest box, chirping and darting from tree to entrance hole, and back to the bush or tree while calling them out. If you were to witness this, you might think the parents have seen a predator. They are very noisy. If a young bird is too weak or simply refuses to leave, after a few hours, the parents will abandon it. Once the young birds fledge or take wing, they do not go back to the nest box. For the next three to four weeks, the parents will continue to feed them. Since the mother bluebird will begin nesting and will lay her first clutch of eggs around the first part of March, she will start all over again and use the same nest box to lay as many as three broods of chicks, sometimes four per season. This is why it is so important to clean out the old nest because you run a risk of blowfly larvae beginning to occupy the old nest. They will feed on the second brood that hatch by sucking their blood which weakens them and may result in death. It is a good idea to monitor your nest box for the bird’s safety.


Bluebirds are very tolerable of humans. There are a lot of bad things that can happen to a nest box that is not monitored. Wood can rot or separate, allowing chilling rain to wet nestlings. House sparrows may attack and destroy eggs, nestlings, and incubating adults. Squirrels may chew and enlarge entrance holes that would allow other predators to access eggs or babies. Wasp, bumblebees, or honeybees may take it over, driving the adults away from babies. Snakes and raccoons can raid nests. Even domestic cats can reach in and gain access to the babies if the box is mounted on a wooden post. It is also a good idea to sprinkle some ant granules at the base of the pole the box is mounted on. It may be hard to believe but they will climb the pole and feed on the baby bluebirds. It is a horrible experience to open a box and find that ants have fed on a young chick to the point of death or, even worse, completely eaten a wing off and are covering the precious chick feeding on it. (Yes, I learned the hard way to put out ant poison at the base of the mounting pole and make sure to reapply often.)


The pair of bluebirds occupying your nest box are engaged in a deadly serious business of trying to raise their young. Even though the adults will tolerate your presence without abandoning the nest, do it quickly and quietly. To be able to check the nest box with ease, I use a mirror. It is perfect for viewing the eggs or babies. You will want to check the nest box weekly so you know when eggs are laid and when fledglings hatch. Boxes should be checked in the afternoon, never early morning. The female usually lays the eggs in the first part of the morning. It is not a good idea to open and check the box in rainy or cold weather. Once the babies are 12 days old, exercise caution when opening the nest box. Young birds are skittish and may fledge or leave the nest prematurely. After approximately 20 days, the nestlings will become fledglings and leave the nest. If you make it to this stage, you will have successfully raised a new brood of bluebirds. Congratulations!


To be able to watch this whole process from courting, nest building, and these young birds hatching and fledging is one of the most rewarding experiences of nature. It is absolutely amazing. Also, you will have become a successful landlord monitor for these once threatened species.


If you happen to put up a nest box to attract these beautiful birds and enjoy them as much as I do, you may decide to join lots of other bluebird lovers that have actually developed an obsession to protect the bluebird and increase their numbers by creating your own bluebird trail.


A bluebird trail is a series of bluebird nest boxes spaced about 300' apart. A bluebird trail can consist of just a few boxes put up in a large backyard or numerous boxes around your yard, your field, or entire property. It is not necessary to have an entire bluebird trail to help. A single box appropriately placed that attracts bluebirds to raise young is always appreciated. The most important part of a bluebird trail is to monitor the nest boxes. I cannot stress this enough. There are no special birding skills needed to have a bluebird trail or just one nest box. Once you get interested in the bluebird you will enjoy them so much you will research their behaviors and, like I have, learn as you go. With the internet at your fingertips, you can become educated quickly.


I have always had a love for birds, but the bluebird is my favorite. My bluebird trail is along our field and around the yard. I have about a dozen nest boxes. I have raised many bluebirds over the years, but I really started what I call my bluebird tail in 2017. I made myself a notebook to help me monitor my boxes. I found a form on the internet that helps me tremendously. It is titled Weekly Nest Box Monitor Form. It assists in tracking when bluebirds began nest building, when they completed nest, number of eggs laid, number of eggs hatched, and number of bluebirds that fledged. I make a sheet for each nest box and as I monitor them, I keep a record. My granddaughters love to help monitor the nest box and experience this exciting process. This is a great hobby to so with your grandchildren. Because I let them help me check the nest boxes, they have a love for the bluebird also now. We have had to put up their own nest boxes, and they are raising bluebirds at their house.


To encourage you to catch the “bluebird fever,” let me just share with you how many bluebirds I have raised just around my house since I started keeping a logbook. In 2017, I raised 36. In 2018, 32. In 2019, 39. In 2020, 39. That is 146 bluebirds in just the last four years. The number of eggs laid was 204, so yes, 58 either didn’t hatch or were stolen by predators, but it is well worth the effort I put into it and the pleasure I receive from it. I am just one person who has had this success with such a rewarding hobby. Thanks to thousands of dedicated bird lovers taking steps, by putting up bluebird nest boxes to assure their survival, the bluebird is continuing to rebound and is very much alive and well. Let me encourage you to build nest boxes, take up this hobby of attracting and raising bluebirds. It is a project that will make your heart—and the bluebird that uses it—sing!


LCW Weekly Nest Box Monitor Form can be found at, www.sialis.org/monitoring.btm.

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