Backroads: Bluebirds: A Colorful Comeback

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Bluebird nest made out of horsehair. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Years ago, bluebirds were abundant in the open fields they like to inhabit. But man inadvertently did away with the hollow trees they used for nesting sites, and rural land began developing into congested urban areas. The remaining trees were taken over by more aggressive birds, such as the house sparrow and starlings.  This resulted in a severe decline in the bluebird population that was estimated at nearly 90%.  In 1978, the North American Bluebird Society was organized, educating people about how necessary it was to preserve these beautiful birds and their natural habitat.  The results of this movement have been a tremendous increase in bluebird numbers by letting people know what the bird’s requirements are for successful living.

Bluebird trails have been established with thousands of nest boxes, providing new places for the birds to raise their young.  People living in rural areas are building boxes and mounting them on fence posts facing open fields where bluebirds are most comfortable.  

Eastern Bluebirds are easy to spot with their brilliant blue plumage on the head, back, wings and tail.  The male is brighter than the female but both have rust-colored feathers down their chin and breast with a white belly and undertail.

Bright blue plumage on the male bluebird. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Males attract females to an area with a repetitive, melodic song that is quite loud. Once a female arrives in that territory he switches to a softer pitched song with longer intervals. He will then fly down to a nest box, bringing attention to the right sized hole and cavity within. Generally, when you see both male and female birds go into a box together several times, it means the two are paired and they are likely to use that particular box as a nest site.

The male will feed the female during the nest building and egg laying period. Under good conditions, bluebirds can have up to three broods a season, with three, four, or five blue eggs in the first brood. Second and third broods are typically smaller. It takes around two weeks for the eggs to hatch after incubation starts. The babies fledge (leave the nest) after 16 to 21 days. For a short time after they have flown the nest, the parents continue to feed them.

In the summer of 1997, one of our neighbors who belonged to the Augusta Bird Club, asked if I would do her an unusual favor.  She was in charge of all the bluebird boxes on the Blue Ridge Parkway from Love to Montebello and wanted to know, while she went on a three-week vacation, if I would monitor the boxes and record the findings. I had to open each box to see if a different species of bird had taken up residence. If so, I had to clean out the nest if there were no babies inside. The iridescent blue/green tree swallows like to build in the boxes, too, but aren’t considered nuisance birds, so they were tolerated.

We had to record the number of bluebird eggs in the brood and whether the mother was in the process of incubating them. If the babies had fledged, the soiled nest would be cleaned out so another hatch could be started. It was so much fun that I recruited our eight-year-old granddaughter, Ashley, to ride along with me each week and before it was over, she basically took over the whole operation. 

We are fortunate to live in a location where bluebirds are abundant and over the years, we have watched them select their nesting sites and documented how many eggs are laid, when they hatch, and watched as the babies fledged. Sitting on the back porch, I have been blessed to observe their habits. For instance, although we have quite a few boxes on our property, there is always a struggle in early spring as to who will win residency: the tree swallows or the bluebirds. The swallows are more aggressive and always move in first, building their nests and guarding the boxes protectively.  However, the bluebirds are tenacious and bide their time, hanging around close enough to annoy the swallows.  More than once I’ve noticed the patience of the bluebirds pay off as they wear down the swallows’ resolve until they just move off.  When that happens, the bluebirds move in!

A bluebird nest is a tiny thing, usually wound tight with grasses but they also use the leftover hair from our horse’s tails when I groom them. And bluebirds are quite mannerly in that they don’t dive bomb you when you peep in the box to see how things are progressing. Mama will sit quietly and let you look if you don’t linger too long.

Ashley inspecting newly hatched baby birds. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

My most memorable sit on the back porch was the day I decided to watch five babies fledge. It was an all-day affair and I had to marvel at the way Mama coaxed her babies out of the box. She dangled a worm in front of the hole, showing them the tasty morsel but not giving it to them. The lure of food was too much, and one by one they came out and perched on top of the box. Gripping it with their feet and madly fluttering their wings for a few minutes, the babies would then zoom off into the wild blue yonder, dipping and diving, trying out their newfound airborne freedom. In the days that followed, we loved watching them line up with their parents on our back fence.

The colorful and much sought-after bluebirds have made a resounding comeback and Henry David Thoreau captured the essence of the bird in his quote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” 

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