Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Plan Now to Attract Bluebirds
March 09, 2019
By Steve Grinley
While official spring is still two weeks away, nesting season is already starting for some of our songbirds. One of the earliest nesters is our Eastern bluebird. One customer has already seen “her” male bluebird singing on top of his nesting box and, later, watched a female respond by visiting, inspecting, and (hopefully) approving the nest site.
I am always happy to hear that so many customers are seeing bluebirds in their yards. This wasn’t the case when I first opened shop more than 20 years ago. Now bluebird populations are once again strong due to conservation efforts, and the efforts of individuals putting up nesting boxes for them.
It is always a joy when a bright blue male bluebird graces our presence. The sheer beauty of the male reflecting in the sunlight is a joy to behold. Now is the time of year when the males take the females around saying “How about you and me here – this year” as they scout out potential nesting sites. Soon a territory is established and then nest building will begin.
The female will construct the nest in four to five days with only minimal help from her mate. She also does the incubating, as the male does not have a brood patch. However, a male will sometimes spend nights in the nest along with his mate.
The female will lay four to five light blue eggs that will take thirteen to fifteen days to hatch. The male brings food to his mate and the young during the critical first few days of feeding. Bluebirds act like tiny hawks in their low perching position, waiting patiently for a crawling insect or beetle to show itself. They then pounce on it and bring the food back to the nest.
The young will fledge in fifteen to twenty days. Even though the parents will keep feeding them after they fledge, the fledglings can find their own food in about two weeks.
Bluebirds usually have two broods, and occasionally three if the weather is favorable. Some of the youngsters from the first brood are often seen bringing food to their new siblings. They teach us much about the bond of family. This often continues into the fall and, at times, they stay together until the following spring.
The key to attracting Bluebirds to nest in your yard is having potential nesting boxes, food and water. Bluebirds do prefer more open areas, so if your yard is heavily wooded you’ll enjoy many other nesting birds, but probably not Bluebirds. However, I have heard of successful bluebird nests in very suburban settings.
Nest boxes should be placed at the edge of an open area, facing a southerly direction (as opposed to northerly) to avoid cold winds and rains early in spring. Since bluebirds are territorial, boxes should be placed about 300 feet apart. To be successful, aggressive house sparrows must be kept at bay by removing their nest material if they attempt to nest, and even trapping and removing the sparrows if they persist. House sparrows are so mean that they will kill the adult bluebird right in the box.
Tree swallows also compete for bluebird houses, but they are good competition. Swallows, like purple martins, eat many flying insects and they are desirable birds to have around. If they are present, you might consider pairing houses, allowing bluebirds in one and the tree swallows in the other. Together, they might help each other combat the house sparrows.
If you want to provide food to attract bluebirds, or help them if they are present, you can offer them mealworms. Live are preferred, but bluebirds will often eat the dried mealworms as well. Providing mealworms during nesting reduces the stress to the bluebirds of having to “find” all their food and can improve success rates. Bluebirds also eat bluebird “nuggets” or peanut butter suet. Providing crushed suet in a tray is easiest for the bluebirds.
Water for drinking and bathing is also a great way of attracting and keeping bluebirds. Having a supply of water year round encourages bluebirds to hang out and, eventually, nest in your yard. Planting native berry bushes such as bayberry, winterberry, pokeweed, red chokeberry, or Virginia creeper this spring may provide food sources for bluebirds next winter.
So plan and act now to attract bluebirds. Put up houses, provide mealworms, suet and water, plant appropriate food sources, and then sit back and watch these brilliant blue gems of birds light up your backyard!
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