Flashes of Blue
"There goes number three!" I shouted as the third bluebird fledgling rocked back and forth in the entrance hole of the bluebird box in my backyard. Suddenly he took a headfirst plunge into flight and landed in a nearby tree, leaving behind the safe confines where he spent the first 17 days of his life with his four brothers and sisters. Number four took her first flight to the neighbor's roof, nearly 75 feet from her nest box. Would all five successfully leave the nest?
I held my breath as another small, blue, spotted face with big, dark eyes peered from the nestbox. After a few moments hesitation, he sprang from the box as if crying "Yahoo," and he, too, was quickly gone. Seeing those five bluebirds take their first flight turned me into a lifelong "bluebirder."
The eastern bluebird, Missouri's state bird, has won many hearts across their eastern U.S. range, but especially in Missouri. Their gentle ways and pleasing looks have made them a favorite of many people. Bluebirds have come to be seen as symbols of hope, spring and happiness. Bluebirds are desirable neighbors, and they consume many nuisance insects, such as grasshoppers, making them a favorite with gardeners.
The bluebird, known to early settlers as the "blue robin," readily accepted man's habit of clearing the land for homesteads. This cousin of the American robin then began to lose its foothold on our landscapes. Destruction of natural bluebird habitat and competition for nesting sites with introduced species, such as the European starling and the English house sparrow caused bluebird populations to shrink. Until recently, many Missourians had never seen the brilliant flash of blue or heard the uplifting 'chur-a-lee' of the bluebird song in spring. Fortunately, eastern bluebird numbers have rebounded and reports show them four times as numerous as they were 20 years ago.
Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning they are unable to excavate their own nesting cavity. They depend on abandoned cavities of other species of birds, such as woodpeckers, that excavate a new cavity each year. However as people removed older, rotting trees, bluebirds were left with fewer nesting options.
Concerned citizens joined together to help save the bluebird. They placed artificial, handmade nesting cavities wherever they found good bluebird habitat, including suburbs and on large open lawns with few bordering trees. Bluebirds readily accepted these artificial nesting sites and their numbers soared. A drive along many of Missouri's roads usually reveals bluebirds perched along utility wires and fenceposts.
Determination may well be the bluebird's middle name. When the pair of bluebirds selected the nest box in my backyard, I began to fully understand their struggle to carry on their species. The male arrived first. After surveying the area he began to sing. His crooning soon attracted a female, who began building a nest.
The next afternoon another bluebird pair decided this nesting box was a perfect site for them to raise their young. The first pair stoutly defended their territory. I later learned that bluebirds only fight other bluebirds of the same sex. The four bluebirds were soon on the ground in two clouds of dust.
The fight went on for only a few seconds, and the second pair flew off in a hasty retreat. Although victorious, the first female had injured her leg and was unable to stand. For a month her mate closely guarded her and fed her insects. I frequently found them perching side by side on the same branch, the male warbling softly. When she was able to stand, they built their nest and successfully raised the five young I saw take their first flight.
This early success helped motivate me to search for other opportunities to place nesting boxes. I was given permission to place approximately 30 nesting boxes at a large park near my home. Because bluebird boxes left unattended may cause more harm by attracting undesirable birds, such as starlings or house sparrows, I monitored these boxes carefully.
I am proud to report that the 1997 nesting season was a success. Eighty three bluebird young fledged and successfully left the nest. Of 96 bluebird eggs, two were lost to snakes, six failed to hatch and a few were destroyed by house wrens. Unfortunately, two nestlings perished due to hypothermia. In addition to the nestlings and eggs, two adult bluebirds defending their nest boxes were killed by house sparrows and one adult bluebird was killed by a house wren.
Come next spring you'll find me checking and repairing bluebird boxes once again. I'm hoping to break my record of 83 bluebird fledglings. Like the adult bluebirds, I am determined and committed to help them raise their young. Will I break my record in 1998? The odds are in my favor . . . But I'll have to let you know. triangle
The Successful Bluebird Nestbox
- one 1'' x 6'' board, 5 feet long
- drywall screws or nails-1 1/2''
- hinge (with small screws)
- paint (light grey or tan preferred)
Cut board into pieces indicated below. Note, floor has notched corners for drainage. The opening hole is 1 1/2'' wide and centered 2 1/4" down from top of front panel. Drill small pilot holes for screws to avoid splitting the wood. Assemble box, build side with hinge first, then building off back panel, attach floor to back and add sides, using one screw centered to secure to floor and two screws to back. Match bottom edge of front to sides. Use one screw for floor and two on each side. (The top edges of the sides and the front do not match, allowing for ventilation.) Position roof over box, using two screws to secure it to the front panel. The back rests on the top of the box against the back panel. Attach hold-down strip tightly above roof to back panel using two screws.
February through March
- Place nest boxes facing east or away from prevailing winds.
- Mount new nest boxes 4 to 5 feet above ground, facing a tree or shrub within 75 to 100 feet.
- Repair any existing nest box and remove any nesting material remaining from the previous nesting season.
April through August
- Monitor nesting boxes once or twice a week. More often could disturb the young birds.
- Avoid startling the nesting female by tapping lightly on the box before inspecting it to alert her to your presence.
- Never open the nesting box after the nestlings are 12 days old, for this may cause them to leave the nest early.
- Remove used nesting material, which may contain parasites.
- Clean and repair nest boxes
- Leave boxes up for winter. On all but the coldest nights, nest boxes offer adequate protection for many roosting birds.