House-hunting with the Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird - Jason Matthews
Jason Matthews

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Along with the plip-plip-plip of sap in the maple buckets, another sound brings the walker to a halt. Bluebird! Henry David Thoreau, who heard it all before us, called it a song that “melts the ear, as the snow melts in the valleys around.”

He’s right—it’s a sound with big distances in it.  Even at close range it seems far off, like a teakettle softly on the boil in somebody else’s house, a hoarse, burbling phrase I hear as So-you-have-the-key? I-have-the-key?  Click here for to hear a bluebird sound.

On a sunny day in early spring, the eastern bluebird goes house-hunting. This most charismatic of thrushes, sporting an orange bib and “carrying the sky on his back” (Thoreau again), appears beside a nestbox or a woodpecker hole, inspecting inside, outside, above and below, or taking a perch nearby and singing a little song, as though testing the acoustics.

While for most birds, a nest is rarely more than a place to lay their eggs, the bluebird’s domesticity seems more than a little human. For one thing, the cavities it chooses are often just four to six feet off the ground—right at our eye-level. Both father and mother are devoted parents, sometimes making more than a dozen trips each hour back and forth to the nest to feed their young. And perhaps its habit of perching atop the box reminds us of a loyal sentry posted on his turret. This dedication, as well as its approachability, have long endeared the bluebird to his human admirers.

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Male eastern bluebird
Photo by Ken Thomas

In fact, since the bird’s summer diet consists largely of insects gleaned from the ground, the nestbox may simply be the best vantage-point from which to hunt. The bluebird has long been valued by farmers as a tenant with a healthy compulsion for vacuuming up pests. When the summer yard is at its greenest, time and again the bluebird drops down, hovering a moment above the grasstops, as though stooping for a bit of string stuck in the carpet. Then up he goes, returning to his own rooftop with a caterpillar squirming in his beak like a drooping cigarette. A rakish Humphrey Bogart, in bright Technicolor.

The bluebird’s lifestyle does overlap with our human one, but not simply because we’re quick to anthropomorphize him. During the colonization of North America, as forest was cleared for pasture and farmland, bluebirds thrived, likely becoming one of our most common songbirds. But beginning in the late 1800s, as their preferred habitat began to revert to forest, and with the introduction of invasive species like the house sparrow and the European starling, populations plummeted. Agricultural pesticides took a toll on bluebirds, and suburban sprawl resulted in the removal of standing deadwood they relied on for nesting sites. Even into the 1980s, the species was listed as “rare” or “threatened” in a number of Eastern states.

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A pair of bluebirds in full nest-building mode

But if people played a major role in bluebird decline, they have also proven themselves a staunch ally. In recent decades, as the environmental movement gained followers and the bluebird’s plight became more widely known, bird-lovers of all sorts have erected hundreds of thousands of specially designed nest-boxes. In fields, farmyards, backyards, and on fencelines along country roads, this ongoing effort has paid enormous dividends, offering the bluebird new real estate on which to stake a claim. Though starlings, sparrows, and house wrens still compete for these nesting sites, the eastern bluebird has made a major comeback in recent years.

On the family farm in western Michigan, the bluebirds nest along the third-base line of our makeshift baseball field. The male flies up into the nearby poplars and watches our game warily, singing a soft play-by-play to his mate, who sits on eggs inside the box. His jumbled notes are like a referee laughing very quietly into his whistle, but we don’t take much notice. Baseball needs only a gruff umpire calling balls and strikes, fair or foul. The pitcher winds, kicks, delivers…and the batter connects, sending a pop fly behind home plate. As the ball rises, the bluebird takes off straight up into the air after it for a moment, as though it were some large white butterfly to be chased down and nabbed. Before he thinks better of it, the two hang there a moment in midair, human and inhuman, paired and separate, before settling back to earth again, both uncaught.

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Interested in building a bluebird house for your back pasture? (Even a medium-sized backyard will do.) It’s simple, and the materials are cheap! Check out the construction plans at the North American Bluebird Society website. And interested in attracting bluebirds? Try putting out some dried mealworms (available at most stores where birdseed is sold) their delicacy of choice! And a clean, shallow bird-bath is also appealing to these notorious bathers.

 

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Male bluebird forages on winterberry
Photo courtesy of NEbirdsplus

About This Blog

Field Notes From the Woods, written by Henry Walters, shares observations and ruminations on plants, wildlife, weather, and other facets of nature. Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

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baby blue jay care?

rescued a baby jay that was bobbing around my yard. Obvious it had gotten out of the nest to early. Parents were around worried, but I have a stray cat that comes around most days and would gobble it up in a flash so I want to care for it and release it when its able. Any help on caring for it?

Blue Jay

Hi Sirena,

You were right to step in if a cat comes around often, nice work. Since you saw the parents nearby, the best thing to do is to build a nest out of sticks, grass, and wool. Secure the nest in a shrub or low tree branch close to where you saw the parents and place the Blue Jay chick in the nest. The bird parents just want their chick back. They will continue to feed and nurture the chick, even if it is not in its original nest. It’s not advised to raise chicks because they will not learn how to be birds without their parents to teach them. In other cases where the parents are not around, contact your local bird rehabilitation center to find out what to do. Excellent question, thanks for writing!  

Thank you, Henry, for this

Thank you, Henry, for this wonderful article. I treasure my bluebird friends each season. They have been coming to the same box on my back fence for many years.

Bluebird

We were just admiring a happy couple taking up residence in a box on our back porch. So joyful

blue bird article

great article !

bluebirds

Pretty bird. Reminds me of Snow White. For some reason I though the bluebirds stole other birds' houses but now I realize that must be the blue jay?

Blue Jays

Blue Jays do not steal other birds nests, they have open air nests while bluebirds nest in boxes or tree cavities. Blue Jays do sometimes steal other birds eggs to eat though. The Brownheaded Cowbird might be the bird you are thinking of. They find other birds nests and lay their eggs in them, and the other birds raise their babies for them.

Bluebirds

The Bluebird of Happiness; where did this idea originate? What is the association with happiness with this particular bird?They surely are beautiful creatures.

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