Migrant wild birds have been streaming steadily into the countryside and our towns here in the northland. Over the past week I’ve seen my first robins, bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, and killdeer of the season. Larger birds such as trumpeter swans, Canada geese, and sandhill cranes have also begun showing up on marshes everywhere. Springtime is the best time.
Few songbirds are more welcome to my color-starved eyes than bluebirds. My first bluebird of 2020 was heard before I spotted him. Singing from a perch in my backyard on March 29, the welcoming warble of a singing male eastern bluebird was about as sweet a sound anywhere to be heard.
Typical for many migrant songbirds, males are the first to arrive at their breeding territories. Soon after their arrival, male bluebirds begin establishing territories and searching for nest sites. Shortly afterwards, females arrive and pair bonding commences.
For astute observers, one can frequently witness single male bluebirds leading a potential mate from one nesting cavity to the next. The female will carefully inspect each cavity, often entering and quickly exiting. Eventually she will choose the nest cavity that suits her needs the best.
Cavity nesting birds such as bluebirds don’t create their own cavities. Rather, they depend on other birds, namely woodpeckers, to create potential nesting cavities. Lucky for us human admirers, bluebirds readily accept artificial nest boxes, in which they build their neat little grass nests.
Indeed, people all over North America living where bluebirds also live have helped bluebird recovery efforts simply because of building and installing bluebird houses.
Bluebird nest structures installed in proper places are extremely attractive to bluebirds, and other birds as well. Tree swallows and house wrens also use birdhouses. At my country home, a bluebird house installed nearby is used by chickadees, too.
Bluebirds do compete with other birds for nesting cavities, and sometimes even mammals such as flying squirrels and white-footed mice as well. Yet a couple of noteworthy non-native species of birds — European starlings and house sparrows — continue to also compete with bluebirds for available cavities.
When I managed an Audubon Society environmental learning center near Warren, Minn., many years ago, one of the features of the refuge was its popular bluebird trail. The trail, which doubled as a hiking trail for visitors and for educational purposes, wound its way through the prairie grasslands, woodlands, and near wetland areas, too.
The majority of the nest boxes were Peterson-style houses, but not all. Some boxes were routinely occupied by house sparrows, house wrens, starlings, and tree swallows. I’d do my best to keep the occupants “bluebird only,” but it didn’t always work out that way. One trick that can reduce tree swallow occupancy, for example, is to install bluebird houses in pairs about five to 10 feet apart. If done this way, and you’ve more pairs of boxes to put out, it’s recommended that 125-150 yards separation occur between each pair of houses.
Bluebirds are members of the thrush family. Relatives include the American robin and all the thrush species. Almost entirely insectivorous, bluebirds will also eat fruits, especially in the early spring, fall, and winter when insects are less abundant or not available.
Common feeding behavior is for a lone bluebird to perch from a conspicuous tree limb where it launches itself into the air to capture a flying insect or chase one to the ground. Bluebirds will also visit your bird feeding station if you include a bowlful of juicy meal worms or a birdbath.
There’s nothing quite like seeing and hearing a bluebird. They’re here at last. My late mother, God rest her soul, just adored bluebirds. And forever more I’ll think of her whenever I see a bluebird, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.