Bluebird season is here!

March is when we start seeing a significant increase in the eastern bluebird activity here in Western New York.

The bluebird is our New York State bird – certainly one of the prettiest birds that we have. Just to clarify for some of our readers, the bluebird should not be confused with the much bigger and bolder blue jay. The bluebird has made a remarkable recovery over the last several decades after seeing a severe population decline in the middle of the 20th century. It is now a very common bird, however, does depend on human intervention to a large degree in the form of providing man-made nesting cavities known as nesting boxes.

Some birds only nest in hollow cavities and the bluebird is one of them. In the early 1900’s there were many many more small farms – each with their own few livestock kept in homemade wooden fences. Those fence posts often had several knotholes in them making for great hollow nesting cavities. Those fences are essentially gone now. Today’s fences use less wood and rarely have hollow cavities.

Over the last 100 years, more competition for nesting cavities from non-native introduced birds from Europe has also been a factor. Bluebirds used to love nesting in hollow cavities of older apple trees in orchards. Two things have happened there – fruit orchards today are much better manicured and have no hollow cavities and spraying of insecticides in orchards has not been good for bluebirds and also the insects that the bluebirds were eating.

So, as you can see, the bluebirds faced a “perfect storm” over several decades in the mid 1900’s. Bluebirds are very dependent on well-placed nest boxes all over NYS. The nest boxes need to be placed in open country settings like large lawns, golf courses, and farm pastures – all away from woodlots and hedgerows (like within 100 feet) to avoid attracting the house wren which is a small and very aggressive native cavity-nesting bird. If your nest box has twigs in it, wrens have used it and it needs to be moved further into the open. Wrens will easily evict a bluebird family.

Bluebirds also face severe competition from the English sparrow, also known as the house sparrow, which is not native to the US. (It’s not even a real sparrow.) House sparrows will use the box in any location. Generally, the further the nest box is from a farmstead or home, the better as the house sparrows also like to be close to buildings. House sparrows are not protected birds and can be legally eradicated.

If you have several bluebird nest boxes and allow the house sparrows to use the nest boxes, you are actually doing the bluebird population more of a disservice than helping it! House sparrows will have 6 to 8 young per brood and will nest 3 or 4 times per year. That’s a lot of house sparrows to be cultivating to eventually challenge the bluebirds! So, if you aren’t going to monitor your nest boxes regularly to discourage nesting of the house sparrows, you may as well refrain from putting up any nest boxes at all.

Bluebirds start nesting in April, though in March will already start claiming nest boxes. Since their nesting is well under way in April, when the tree swallows (native cavity-nesting birds) arrive, tree swallow competition isn’t a major factor. Generally, there are plenty of nest boxes out there for the tree swallows which are also desirable and fascinating birds. Generally, tree swallows start showing up in early April, but most come later and nest a bit later. Tree swallow nests will be lined with feathers whereas bluebird nests won’t be.

When you see a pair of bluebirds hanging around one of your nest boxes, it brings a great feeling of satisfaction and joy. Their soft song and their antics as they make the box their home are welcome signs of spring. The male is much more colorful than the female. The female will do the nest building while the male guards the nest box (and supervises!?) The nest can be made very quickly and it may be several days until the first egg is laid. She lays one egg a day and when all 4 to 6 eggs are laid, she begins incubating them so they all hatch at the same time. Usually the eggs are hatched later in April or very early May.

Given that the weather in early May can be cold and wet, many first nestings of bluebirds are not successful because the adults can’t find enough food, and the female needs to keep the young warm. If the young die, you need to immediately clean out the nest box including the nesting material to improve chances of the bluebirds re-nesting in the same box. In a perfect world, bluebirds can have three broods per nesting season, however, if they manage two, that is fine. Probably on average, one successful brood per bluebird pair is reality due to several nesting challenges which could include raccoon predation, takeover of the nest by ants, or several other issues!

In summary, “blue birding” is a really fun and rewarding activity, however, it has its challenges and heartbreaks for the bluebirds ... and for us! But remember that the bluebirds keep a positive attitude and keep retrying in the same box or another and it’s up to us to monitor the nest boxes to see what is going on. So, as you can see, a little human intervention and help is key! Our reward is the joy of having these beautiful birds with us.

If you have any questions on working with bluebirds feel free to contact me via text or call on my cell (585-813-2676) or go the NYS Bluebird Society website. Enjoy the spring and the bluebirds!