In March, eastern bluebirds set up serious housekeeping.
Male bluebirds can arrive as early as mid-February to begin scouting for a perfect nest site. The nest is placed in a bluebird house or empty woodpecker hole. The male creates an elaborate show by fluttering around the entrance and carrying nesting material in and out of the hole. Once a female enters the nest cavity, the deal is sealed and she immediately gets to work building the nest while the male “supervises.” The female loosely weaves grasses and pine needles together and then lines the nest with fine grasses and occasionally horse hair or turkey feathers.
Females lay between two to seven eggs and also do the majority of incubating. During this time, the male feeds her so she doesn’t have to leave the nest. The chicks hatch after 11 to 19 days. Both parents are kept busy feeding their brood.
Insects caught on the ground are the bluebirds’ main source of food. Major prey includes caterpillars, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and spiders. In fall and winter, bluebirds eat large amounts of fruit including mistletoe, sumac, blackberries, black cherry, tupelo, currants, wild holly, dogwood berries, hackberries, honeysuckle, bay, pokeweed and juniper berries. One fall, I witnessed dozens of bluebirds feasting on pokeweed in the Bickelhaupt Arboretum’s Bird Haven.
Eastern bluebirds are not attracted to traditional seed feeders, so one must employ a bit of creativity when seeking to attract them to your yard. They love live mealworms, which can be easily purchased at bait shops and pet stores. Strategically place the worms on a platform feeder in your yard or near a wood line where you’ve observed bluebirds or near a potential nesting site.
An enticing suet cake includes animal fat, stone-ground cornmeal, peanut butter and mealworms. Crumble firm suet onto your platform feeder with mealworms for your best chance of enticing bluebirds. Finally, to broaden your chances of attracting these birds, place dried fruit tidbits on the feeder such as blueberries, strawberries, currants, and raisins.
You can also attract bluebirds by planting natural food sources in your yard such as American elderberry, foster holly, eastern red cedar, and flowering dogwood. Be sure to include varieties that retain fruit into the winter months to provide an ongoing food source. The eastern bluebirds are considered to be partial migrants. Scientists believe that a certain percentage of bluebirds aren’t genetically programmed to fly south for the winter. On the Clinton Christmas Bird Count, bluebirds are generally found every year in Bulger’s Hollow.
Eastern bluebirds typically have more than one brood per year. In fact, the female often begins a second nest in another nest box while the male finishes up feeding the first brood. Often, youngsters newly fledged will stick around and help their parents raise the next brood. Once the last chick fledges, it’s important to clean the box as soon as possible and dispose of the nest appropriately, away from the nest box.
Often bluebirds will use the same nest box for their second and possibly third broods. For detailed information on building and cleaning bluebird nest boxes go to the North American Bluebird Society’s website: nabluebirdsociety.org
As winter becomes spring, keep your eyes out for these beautiful birds. It’s always nice to see a once rare species more frequently. Look for the bluebirds at Bickelhaupt Arboretum, Eagle Point Park, riverfront, and perhaps, even in your own backyard.
Linda Boardsen is a member of the Quad-City Audubon Society, and Mississippi Flyway Action Network.