By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
(Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country)
With all the cold weather we’ve had of late, it might seem a bit early to be talking about getting ready for bluebirds, but in our neck of the woods, many have already begun their search for spring nesting sites. In the winter, bluebirds flock together in large groups of mixed adults and fledglings from last year’s broods. But just about the beginning of March, the large groups begin to break up into smaller family groups and pairs. So, if you would like to invite a nesting pair of bluebirds to your yard, late February and early March are the best time to put out the welcome mat.
The eastern bluebird is one of the most striking small birds found in the Ozarks. The male has a bright blue head, back and tail feathers. His soft-white breast is topped off by a deep orange patch that can be seen beneath the chin and below the wings. As is typical of many birds, the female bluebird is not as flashy as her mate and is mostly brown with just a hint of blue on the primary and tail feathers. This helps her to hide from predators while nesting and foraging for her young.
There are three species of bluebirds in the United States – the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) and the Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides). All are very similar in their habits and preferences for nesting sites. The Eastern Bluebird is the dominant species throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States.
Like their cousins, the robins, bluebirds belong to the thrush family. These small, 7” long birds are active insect eaters that often hunt from low perches such as fences, poles and power lines. Although their most-loved food is mealyworms, they will also eat fruits and berries in season. Their call is a long, “chirr-wi” or “tru-a-lly, tru-a-lly”, which is most often heard during the spring mating season when they vie strongly with one another and other cavity dwelling birds, for suitable nesting sites.
Because bluebirds are primarily grassland birds that prefer natural cavities in which to nest, man-made boxes must be built to specific dimensions and hung in just the right location. The North American Bluebird Society has a fantastic array of information on bluebirds, including several types of bluebird boxes that you can make at home.
The Society also recommend hanging nesting boxes in “an open area with scattered trees and sparse ground cover. Avoid underbrush, tall grass, dense woods, farm buildings and areas where pesticides are used. Good choices are mown lawns, fields, meadows, orchards, and road sides.”
Like so many other birds, bluebirds were profoundly affected by the widespread use of the insecticide DDT, which was highly effective against malarial mosquitoes and other insect pests and was sprayed copiously in both urban and rural settings. However, DDT adversely affected the shells of many bird species, making them exceedingly thin and fragile. The overall negative effect of DDT on the bluebird’s reproduction success was only compounded by stiff competition for diminishing nesting cavities typically found in forests with older trees. With the rise in irresponsible logging and land clearing practices that focus on removing only the largest trees and heavy competition from more aggressive tree-dwelling species, the bluebird found itself pushed hard into a very tight corner.
Even after DDT was banned for use in the United States and efforts at conservation had begun, the bluebird population continued to decline drastically. By the 1960’s the number of bluebirds in the U.S. had reached an all time low. The concerted efforts of conservationists and bird lovers across the country helped save the near-extinct species through education programs, which showed landowners how they could implement better land management practices to benefit both the birds and the landowners themselves. They also encouraged the public to install bluebird-specific nesting boxes in every available location. The result of this effort can be seen today in healthy numbers of all three species of North American bluebirds.
Many years ago, my Dad gave me my first bluebird box. It was a pretty little thing that he made by hand using rustic recycled wood. And even though he specifically told me to hang it in an open area away from my heavily wooded front yard, I wanted to be able to watch the bluebirds from the kitchen window. Thinking I could get away with it, I hung the box where I could see it best.
For two years I watched with hope as bluebirds inspected the box, occasionally going so far as to bring in dried grasses to build a nest. But every year the pair would suddenly abandon the project, leaving it available for errant woodpeckers, squirrels and the occasional pair of chickadees or titmice.
Although I couldn’t watch them as closely as I would have liked, I finally conceded that the birds rejected the box because the location was just too wooded. By now I knew that the only reason they considered the box at all was because of the severe shortage of more suitable housing in the open spaces they preferred. Once I moved the box to the right location, the birds immediately began to nest.
If you have bluebird boxes already in place, now is the time to clean them for the coming nesting season. Remove old nests and other debris, check the sturdiness of the box and be sure it is hung securely. For those wishing to attract bluebirds, build or buy a bluebird box and hang it in an open place with a mixture of open areas and trees for perching. Since bluebirds begin searching for nesting sites in late February and early March, time is of the essence.
Now that we are in our new home, we have several excellent locations for bluebird boxes very close to the house (so I can see them from my kitchen window and still provide the best possible site). I still have a mostly wooded landscape, but the trees here are widely spaced, providing enough open ground for them to hunt. Last year, our bluebirds raised two successful broods in their new home and I look forward to having them back again this year. Who knows, maybe I can even talk my Dad into making few more bluebird boxes so I can create my own “bluebird trail”.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.