You may know the sweet little bluebird from many popular songs, books, and movies, such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. Learn more about this good friend to gardeners and listen to the sounds of the eastern bluebird.
Have you spotted a bluebird? Like the robins, bluebirds are harbingers of spring—and many bluebirds (about a third) even stick around for winter.
Poets like James Russell Lowell recognized the bluebirds’ beauty, especially needed in troubled times, with these memorable lines he wrote in “Under the Willows”:
“The Bluebird, shifting his light load of song, from post to post along the cheerless fence, a Spring habit which has delighted many”
The gentle Eastern Bluebird has often been regarded as our most beautiful thrush. There are two western cousins that compete with it for the beautiful azure blue color. The Western and Mountain Bluebird split from the Eastern Bluebird 2 million years ago—evolution is never in a hurry!
Eastern Bluebirds are small thrushes—about 6 to 8 inches long with a wingspan of 9 to 12 inches long, weighing around 1 ounce. They have round heads and often plump bellies for their size.
The male has a brilliant royal blue head and back and a warm reddish-orange throat and breast. The females are grayish with a subtler orange on the belly and elegant blue tinges on their wings. With their beautiful colors, bluebirds are a treat to sight out your window or through a telescope.
Bluebirds prefer open country, especially areas with abandoned apple orchards. Old apple trees have many holes and openings for flight and nesting.
In the 19th century, House Sparrows migrated from Europe and displaced bluebirds by occupying nest holes, and then the European Starling appeared, too—an even larger and more aggressive bird that competed for the same territory.
Today, the bluebird often makes its home in man-made nest boxes!
You’ll often see bluebirds in open country, meadows, fields, and golf courses (especially if there’s a bird box). They’ll also perch in the open along fences or power lines, scanning the ground for prey. They feed by dropping to the ground onto insects (70% of their diet) or, in fall and winter, by perching on fruiting trees to gulp down berries (the remaining 30%).
Gardeners love bluebirds because help out in the garden! They are voracious insect eaters, and can quickly rid a garden of pests. In summers, they are also a delightful vision among the flowers with their blue and red plumage—a fairy tale come alive!
Eastern Bluebirds do not normally visit feeders because they eat insects (unless you can stock feeders with mealworms). They also enjoy the fruits of shrubs such as winterberries, Virginia creeper, sumac, hackberry, and hawthorn. Their beaks are not designed to open most birdseed mixtures.
Eastern Bluebirds do not normally make their own nests; these small birds are not strong enough. So, they look for nooks and crannies in trees to protect their young.
But natural cavities in trees have become less available due to loss in habitat, so bluebirds often rely on “bird boxes” with small holes for entry and exist. (They don’t use perches so just a simple untreated wood box will do; pine wood is a good choice.)
It’s the male who identifies a nest cavity, bringing nesting material to the hole, and flapping his wings near the cavity to get attention. Once he attracts a female, she finishes building the nest and incubates them. Bluebirds generally have one or two broods a year, laying 3 to 8 pale blue eggs. The eggs hatch after 2 weeks, and the nestlings will open their eyes within 4 to 6 days. The first brood will usually leave the mother by summer’s end, but if the brood is born later in the season, they’ll hang out with their mother through the winter.
Eastern Bluebirds are a great prospect for nest boxes if you have a more open yard space. Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young.
In a study of more than 3,000 bluebirds by Cornell University, it was discovered that a nest box should ideally face east or southeast away from prevailing winds.