Happiness is an Eastern Bluebird

 

Bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds in your yard or garden will have no trouble with minor intrusions into their lives as they go about their daily routine, and the payoff for you is hours of free entertainment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

I’m pleased to report that the first of the season’s young Eastern Bluebirds have left the security of their nest box in our yard – the only home they’ve known since hatching – for the wider world of field and woodland.

As has usually been the case, I didn’t witness their departure. In the days after the fledglings departed the wooden nest box, I’ve observed them perched and waiting, impatiently usually, for their parents to arrive with caterpillars, moths or other morsels of food.

The Eastern Bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesters include ducks, such as Buffleheads and Wood Ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern Screech-owls and American Kestrels.

Some of these species, such as woodpeckers and nuthatches, can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree. Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition. The Eastern Bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European Starlings and the House Sparrows.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird inspects a nesting cavity in a wooden fence post.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern Bluebird inspects a nesting cavity in a wooden fence post.

Last month, I found bluebirds nesting in a cavity in a wooden fence post that was part of an enclosure for a field. The fence post nest reinforced how changing landscapes have also affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones. Dead or dying trees – a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern Bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of such organizations as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern Bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri.

There are two other species of bluebirds found in North America.

The Western Bluebird is found throughout the year in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico, as wells part of Mexico. The species ranges in the summer as far north as the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Montana.

The Mountain Bluebird nests in open country in the western United States as far north as Alaska. They are short-distance migrants, retreating as far south as Mexico during the winter season.

Except for a whitish-grayish belly, the male Mountain Bluebird is a brilliant sky blue above with paler blue on his underparts. The female looks similar if duller in her coloration.

Some people in the region mistakenly assume that Eastern Bluebirds are “mountain” bluebirds because they will reside in higher elevation open areas. The simplest way to tell the two species apart — although not necessary since the range of the Mountain Bluebirds is hundreds of miles to the west — is the reddish undersides of both sexes of the Eastern Bluebird.

The states of Nevada and Idaho have selected the Mountain Bluebird as their official state bird. I saw this species in 2006 during a trip that took me to Utah and Idaho.

Bluebirds are members of the extended family of thrushes, making them relatives of such birds as American Robin, Wood Thrush and Veery. The relationship of the Eastern Bluebird to the American Robin can be seen in the red breast sported by both species. In addition, young robins and bluebirds both have spotted breasts, providing more evidence of their affinity with many of the thrushes. The thrush family numbers more than 100 species worldwide and extends into Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as various islands.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material.

Inviting the Eastern Bluebird into your yard and gardens is not usually too difficult. It helps if you live in an open, spacious habitat bordered with small trees. Providing a nesting box constructed to the specifications for this bird is another way to attract them. With natural cavities in trees and fence posts a rare commodity, this bird will readily accept boxes. It’s not a sure-fire means of bring bluebirds closer. Plenty of other native birds, including Carolina Chickadees, Tree Swallows and House Wrens, will also make use of a box designated for bluebirds.

The NABS recommends a box that is well ventilated, watertight and equipped with drainage holes. The box should also be easy to open, monitor and clean.

For more specific and very valuable information about becoming a landlord for bluebirds, please visit http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/PDF/FAQ/NABS%20factsheet%20-%20Getting%20Started%20-%2024May12%20DRAFT.pdf to access an informative fact sheet.

Starlings and House Sparrows are not native species and are not protected by law. When present, these two introduced species will probably be your biggest challenge to successfully hosting Eastern Bluebirds. On its website, NABS encourages the control of starlings and House Sparrows. The website – http://www.sialis.org – also provides beneficial information for would-be bluebird landlords.

Tree Swallows and House Wrens, both native birds, will probably be the biggest rivals for nesting boxes intended for Eastern Bluebirds. If you should find that a pair of Tree Swallows or House Wrens has claimed a box, consider yourself fortunate and benefit from the opportunity to view the habits of these two interesting species for a few weeks.

In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern Bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

If your home doesn’t provide suitable bluebird habitat, it’s still easy to enjoy these beautiful birds. An afternoon or evening drive into open country, such as agricultural farmland, is likely to yield sightings of this bird on fences and utility lines. Golf courses, some of which go the extra mile to accommodate bluebirds, also provide habitat for these lovely birds.

The Eastern Bluebird is present in the region in any season and is one of our more common birds. If you’re already an experienced landlord and host for these birds, you probably already know they joys they can bring. If not, why not try to attract them closer to you? Most bluebirds in the region have already completed the first nesting of the season, but these birds are known to nest two or even three times in a single season. There’s still time to place a nest box or two on your property to get their attention.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The female Eastern Bluebird is not quite as brightly colored as her mate.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The female Eastern Bluebird is not quite as brightly colored as her mate.

Landscaping with fruit-bearing trees and shrubs can also pay dividends when its comes to the Eastern Bluebird. Although this bird feeds heavily on insects, almost a third of its diet consists of fruits, including blackberry, mulberry and pokeberry.

Inviting bluebirds to become a part of your life isn’t difficult, and you’ll be delighted to have them. Trust someone who has lived with bluebirds in his yard and gardens for more than 20 years.

•••••

To ask a question, make a comment or share a bird observation, reach me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

 

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