, Newburyport, MA

March 30, 2013

Attract bluebirds with nesting boxes, water

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Last Saturday’s woodcock walk in the Industrial Park was a great success. Despite the cold, the timberdoodles emerged right on cue at about 20 minutes after sunset. We first heard the distinctive call of one bird and then another across the road.

We stood in the chilling air and could see one bird very clearly, body thrusting forward with each “peent.”It soon took the air, circled over us, and we could then hear the twittering sound of the wind moving through its wings as it fluttered back to earth.

This courtship display was repeated several times, but the cold soon overtook us as we sought shelter in the cars. We heard a couple of more birds as we drove along. The American woodcock was a life bird for two of the participants. Another happening event this early in spring is the beginning of the nesting season for some of our songbirds.

One of the earliest nesters is the Eastern bluebird. One customer has seen “her” male bluebird singing on top of his nesting box and, later, watched a female respond by visiting, inspecting, and (hopefully) approving the nest site.

I am so pleased to hear that so many customers are seeing bluebirds in their yards. This wasn’t the case when I first opened shop 18 years ago.

Now bluebirds are more prevalent due to the conservation efforts of many, and the efforts of individuals who put up nesting boxes for them. I always take pause when a bright blue male bluebird graces my presence. The sheer beauty of the male reflecting in the sunlight is a joy to behold.

Now is the time of year when the males take the females around saying, “how about you and me here,” as they scout out potential nesting sites. Soon a territory is established and then nest building will begin.

The female will construct the nest in four to five days with only minimal help from her mate. She also does the incubating, as the male does not have a brood patch. However, a male will sometimes spend nights in the nest along with his mate. The female will lay four to five light blue eggs that will take 13 to 15 days to hatch. The male brings food to his mate and the young during the critical first few days of feeding.

Bluebirds act like tiny hawks, in their perched hunting position, waiting patiently for a crawling insect or beetle to show itself. They then pounce on it and bring the food back to the nest. The young will fledge in 15 to 20 days. Even though the parents will keep feeding them, the fledglings can find their own food in about two weeks.

Here in New England the bluebirds have two broods, — and occasionally three, — as they do in the south if we have spring and summer weather that cooperates. Some of the youngsters from the first brood are often seen bringing food to their new siblings. They teach us much about the bond of family. This often continues into the fall and at times they stay together until the following spring.

The key to attracting bluebirds to nest in your yard is having potential nesting boxes, food and water. Bluebirds do prefer more open areas, so if your yard is heavily wooded you’ll enjoy many other nesting birds, but probably not bluebirds.

Nest boxes should be placed at the edge of an open area, facing a southerly direction to avoid cold winds and rains early in spring. Since bluebirds are territorial, boxes should be placed about 300 feet apart.

To be successful, aggressive house sparrows must be kept at bay by removing their nest material and even trapping and removing the sparrows. They are so mean that they will kill the adult bluebird right in the box. Tree swallows also compete for bluebird houses, but they are good competition. Swallows, like purple martins, eat many flying insects and they are desirable birds to have around. If they are present, you might consider pairing houses, allowing bluebirds in one and the tree swallows in the other.

If you want to provide food to help and attract bluebirds, the best thing you can offer is mealworms. Live are best, but bluebirds will often eat the dried mealworms as well. Providing mealworms during nesting reduces the stress to the bluebirds of having to find all their food and can improve success rates. Bluebirds also eat bluebird nuggets or suet. Providing crushed suet in a tray is easiest for the bluebirds.

Water for drinking and bathing is also a great way of attracting and keeping bluebirds. Having a supply of water throughout the year encourages bluebirds to hang out, and eventually, nest in your yard.

Planting berry bushes, like American Bittersweet, this spring provides food sources for bluebirds for next winter. So what are you waiting for? Put your houses up, and mealworms, suet and water out, then sit back and watch these brilliant blue gems light up your backyard!


Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift in Newburyport.