A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting by my window watching the birds at my feeder, when I did a double take! There was a flock of robins on my lawn! Don’t they know it’s not spring yet? Maybe they know something I don’t. Anyway, the arrival of even one robin makes me think of another spring arrival–the Eastern Bluebird.
Bluebirds have been declining due to loss of habitat and predator birds. However, there has been a concerted effort by bluebird organizations to educate the public in ways to foster an increase in the bluebird population.
One of the best ways is to build or buy your very own bluebird house. In the early spring, these beautiful birds will be looking for a nesting place to raise a family. You can provide that place.
If you decide to build your bluebird box, here are some tips for you.
1. A bluebird box can be built of any type of wood, but cedar or redwood are recommended because they withstand the elements well. Do not use treated lumber because it is toxic.
2. Never put a perch on a bluebird house. They do not need one and it will only attract sparrows and wrens that will try to take over.
3. The round hole for Eastern Bluebirds should be exactly 1 1/2 inches. Some models have a slit across the top of the front panel.
4. Make sure the box is watertight, well ventilated and easy to clean and to monitor the birds. Often the front of the box is hinged and drops down so you can look in.
Where do I place the box?
Mount the box on a smooth, round pipe, placing the box about 5 feet off the ground. Installing a stovepipe baffle will insure that predators such as raccoons or snakes do not get into the box. See that the opening faces away from the prevailing winds. It’s good if there are some shrubs close by for the fledglings to perch on when they first try out their wings.
Bluebirds like rural settings. The boxes are best placed in open areas with shrubs and mowed grass. You want to avoid woods or overly shrubby areas. This is the habitat of the house wren which is an enemy of the bluebird. The bluebirds eat insects that they can see, so an area that is not too overgrown is good for them.
If you have the room, you might consider starting a bluebird trail. This is a series of bluebird boxes placed at least 125 feet apart.
Now that the box is up, what can I expect?
Bluebirds usually nest in late March or early April, unless you live in the South where they stay all year round. Here in central Virginia, I start looking in mid March. The male comes first and searches out a nesting place. He starts to build the nest and then tries to attract a female by flapping his wings and singing. If she says “yes”, she will take over building the nest. Once a pair of bluebirds have moved in, it is important to monitor the nest. You should keep a notebook just for this purpose.
Here is a timetable for one brood from start to finish.
• Nest Building: 1 – 6 days
• Egg Laying: 5 – 7 days
• Incubation: 12-14 days
• Brooding: 6 days
• Fledgling: day 16 through 21
You can look in the box any time up to the 16th day. The bluebirds have a poor sense of smell and don’t mind you sneaking a peek. However once they reach the 16th day, don’t open the door. You don’t want the little fledglings to fly out before they are ready. Of course, sometimes you don’t know exactly when day 1 was, so err on the side of caution, when checking on them. This is when I use my Nikon Monarch 8 X 42 ATB binoculars to view them up close from my porch.
Bluebirds usually lay 4 to 5 light blue eggs. And they will have at least two broods per season. When the first brood is safely on its way, remove the nest and if needed, clean out the box. Now it’s ready for family #2.
What dangers should I look for?
There are two things that you should be on the lookout for: predators and parasites.
Predators: House sparrows and wrens will try to nest in the bluebird house. They will peck at the sitting female and smash the eggs. If your hole is the right diameter, wrens will be kept out, but you’ll have to be on the lookout for the sparrows. Familiarize yourself with the shape of a bluebird nest. It is like a rounded cup built with grass and pine needles. The center of the cup is fairly deep and the entire nest does not extend to the top of the house. So monitor the nest as it is being built. Of course, you may see the bluebirds going in and out.
Parasites: The most common parasite is the bluebird blowfly. The adult lays eggs in the bluebirds nest and the larvae hatch into maggots the size of a navy bean. They crawl out at night and drink the blood of the nestlings. To check for an infestation, slide a flat knife into the nest material just under the cup. If you find a layer, soiled and crawling with larvae, you will have to replace the nest. Remove and bag the infested nest and replace it with a new one that you have fashioned. There’s a small window of opportunity to do this. If they’re younger than 9 days, they are too fragile. If they’re older than 13 days, they run the risk of fledging too soon.
If you follow these simple tips to encourage and care for your bluebirds, they will give many days of enjoyment. And if you’re like me, you’ll be thinking about where you can put a second nest.