Blane Klemek: Sweet sounds of the bluebirds are back in northern MN
The bluebirds are back! And according to my calendar, about the same time as last spring, which is a little later than “average”. Nevertheless, the sweet melody of a singing lone male bluebird was music to my ears on April 6. I stood for a moment and closed my eyes while listening to the wonderful song.
A “prize for the eyes” for all birdwatchers, bluebirds are one of the most watchable of our avian friends and are members of a musical group of birds. Mention bluebirds in a room where birders abound, and you’re sure to make plenty of friends.
Bluebirds are thrushes and part of a group comprised of such species as American robin, Swainson’s thrush, and veery. Our bluebird here in Minnesota is the eastern bluebird. Two others, the western bluebird and mountain bluebird, are typically observed throughout western United States. Even so, all three species of bluebirds’ ranges overlap and occasional hybridization occurs. Mountain bluebirds are rarely seen in Minnesota, but do in fact show up and surprise a number of birders every year. Some people have even reported mountain bluebirds nesting in the state.
Eastern bluebirds are about seven inches long from tail tip to beak tip. The eloquently dressed males, which sport the bright blue plumage with orange breasts and throats, are worthy of anyone’s gaze, but the females aren’t too shabbily dressed either. Lighter, dustier blues and oranges definitely identify her as a bluebird all the way.
The cavity nesting behavior of the eastern bluebird has made this bird vulnerable to habitat degradation and, subsequently, nest-site competition, especially from non-native species of birds like European starlings. But thankfully the birds readily accept artificial human-made structures, and hence the reason bluebirds have rebounded in some parts of its range.
Building bluebird houses — and any birdhouse for that matter — is a fabulous and worthwhile hobby for young and old alike. Abundant and simple designs can be viewed and printed from the Internet or selected from umpteen books on the subject, including Minnesota DNR non-game biologist Carrol Henderson’s ever-popular book, Woodworking for Wildlife.
And you know it’s not too late to put out new birdhouses, even if a few bluebirds have already trickled into the countryside. Male bluebirds are generally the first to arrive on the breeding grounds (though not always) and the females will soon follow. Male bluebirds will seek prospective territories or return to the same fields they occupied the year before.
I recall several years ago when I observed a courting pair in their nesting territory. It was late March when I happened to see the male alight on top of a nest-box while singing and performing “wing-waving” behaviors. The female joined him by fluttering near the entrance-hole of the birdhouse.
She momentarily suspended herself in front of the opening until she grasped the face of the box with her feet, propped herself upright with her tail for support, and poked her head inside the house for a look. As quickly as she performed the inspection, she flew off across the field to another birdhouse, with her suitor seemingly leading the way, and the pair completed the same act again. I imagine the house-hunting couple carried out dozens of cavity visits, probably touring both artificial and natural varieties, until she decided upon a favorite nest-site.
After courtship, during which the males often bring food to the female, the pair begins nest-building chores. Both birds assist each other in material collection, but it’s usually the female that constructs the actual nest-bowl. Fine grasses and stems are normal nest material, but so are white pine needles if readily available. Feathers are rarely used, if at all.
Following a weeklong nest construction project, the female lays four to five blue eggs — sometimes white. She alone incubates the eggs (about two weeks) until the eggs hatch. But because the nestlings are born without feathers, the female continues to brood, keeping the youngsters warm and safe, while the male brings much needed food for mother and babies. Soon afterwards when nestlings are a little larger and are graced with a few feathers, mama joins papa for a relentless two to three-week feeding routine.
In all, from incubation to fledging, a month’s time, maybe a little longer, has been consumed. And chances are good that after Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird have ensured that their nestlings can fend for themselves, they will do it all over again and raise another clutch. Often is the case that the first family joins in the rearing of the second clutch. It’s a family affair.
With the late spring that we’re having this year, consider putting out small bowls full of mealworms or waxworms. Bluebirds and other insectivorous songbirds are looking for insects, but insects are hard to come by when it’s cold outside. Such activities might draw bluebirds closer to your home and into view as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)