Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Bluebirds Entering Real Estate Market
March 21, 2009
By Steve Grinley

     If you remember last weekend, the tease of warm weather hit us again and birds were singing everywhere. The redwings and grackles were noisy and the song sparrows continued their roadside songs. We could even hear the “fee-bee” whistle of the chickadee, announcing the “start” of Spring.

     A drive through West Newbury revealed a male bluebird singing atop a tree near the Cherry Hill Reservoir. He seemed certain that Spring was here, and he was obviously trying hard to attract a mate When he finished his repertoire, he flew down out of site, hopefully, to a nesting box in the obscured backyard.

     We encountered a second male bluebird on Rogers Street. This one was singing on a telephone wire along a driveway. There was a bluebird box affixed to the telephone pole below and the bluebird seemed to be announcing his territory – also trying to find a mate. We left him singing is the March sun, and hoped that he would attract a suitable female. It was encouraging to find bluebirds already on territory.

     It wasn’t so long ago that bluebirds were a rare sight in this area. The scourge of DDT in the 1950s and 60s along with competition for nesting sites from house sparrows caused their populations to plummet. The banning of pesticides and the efforts of people to put up suitable nesting boxes for bluebirds have helped bring back these beautiful birds to our rural and suburban neighborhoods.

     March is the time when bluebirds start to establish their territories, reclaim nesting boxes from seasons past, or scout out new houses for this season. If you have bluebird nest boxes up, do check them and clean them out if necessary. Often times they will be used for roosting during the winter months so it is best to be sure they are clean and ready for new occupants.

     The real estate market for bluebirds is not like ours – there is not a large inventory out there for them. If you don’t have houses up, now is the time to put up new ones. Bluebirds begin nesting in March and April. They have two or, sometimes, three broods so they may take to a nesting box anytime between now and June. Bluebirds feed on insects on the ground and in low grasses, so it is best to place the box near the edge of an open area. Position the boxes so they don’t face north or northeast from which we get our cold driving winds, rain, and, yes, even snow early in Spring. Bluebirds are territorial, but you can add boxes three hundred feet apart with the possibility of attracting multiple pairs.

     Tree swallows compete for the same size box, but tree swallows don’t arrive in numbers for another few weeks. Swallows eat a lot of flying insects, so they are also cool birds to attract to your yard. Nesting boxes can be paired within ten to twenty feet of each other allowing tree swallows and bluebirds to nest side-by-side. Together they can fight off the dreaded house sparrow which is enemy number one to both the swallows and the bluebirds. The sparrows are so aggressive that they will kill the adult birds (or the young) right inside the nest box.

     Another way to encourage bluebirds to stay and nest in your yard is to offer them mealworms. In spring and summer, eighty percent of a bluebird’s diet is insects. During the hard weather early in the season, and during the breeding season when the competition for food is high, feeding mealworms can be the key to bluebird success. Plus you get to enjoy these beautiful birds up close as they can easily be put on a schedule. They will be waiting for their next feeding and often respond to the noise of opening the feeder or a simple whistle.

     You can begin by putting the mealworms out in an open dish, perhaps with a cover over it for inclement weather. Other birds will be interested in the mealworms as well, including chickadees, Carolina wrens, robins and, unfortunately, starlings. Since, as I mentioned, bluebirds will get accustomed to a scheduled feeding, other birds may not be so clever. However, if competition for the mealworms becomes a problem, you can get a special bluebird feeder that allows the bluebirds to go inside to feed and keeps out starling and larger birds.

     Putting up nesting boxes and feeding mealworms are both ways that we can help, and enjoy, bluebirds this spring!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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