Several species of birds herald spring, including the red-winged blackbird, robin, turkey vulture, killdeer, tundra swan, and several other species of waterfowl and birds of prey.
But probably the most beautiful and revered is the return of the Eastern Bluebird. Our New York State bird is a beautiful blue, red and white oriole-sized bird larger than a sparrow but much smaller than a robin.
Bluebirds are closely related to the American robin as they are both part of the thrush family. Their turquoise eggs are the same color, but the eggs of blue birds are proportionally smaller. While a robin builds a grass and mud nest in trees and on building ledges, the bluebird is a cavity nester, thus building its nest inside hollow trees, hollow fence posts and now mostly in artificial nest boxes. Humans have been building bluebird nesting boxes for several decades, which has been the main reason for the huge resurgence in the bluebird population over the past 50 years.
The decline of bluebirds was mainly due to the lack of suitable nesting sites, which was due to several factors. These include traditional farms moving from old knotted hole fence posts to straight wooden and metal fence posts without hollow cavities, apple orchards no longer having older trees with trunks and hollow branches, pesticides in apple orchards, competition from other non-native birds, and the general practice of people removing dead and hollow trees from their yards and landscapes.
If there was ever a citizens’ initiative to help save an endangered species, the establishment of bluebird nesting boxes throughout the eastern part of this country is probably the best example. Bluebirds have been helped by so many farm and home owners who have placed the nesting boxes for the benefit of bluebird population expansion.
(Another good example, but more related to pesticide regulations, is the return of bald eagles to a healthy population after the pesticide DDT was banned.)
This is the time of year when preparations should be made to prepare for the bluebird nesting season. Bluebirds are currently returning from the south and pairing up and looking for their favorite nesting sites, which overwhelmingly include nesting boxes. It is likely that well over 80% of the current Eastern Bluebird population was raised in a nest box. It is actually quite difficult to find an active nesting bluebird in a natural nesting cavity in a hollow tree or fence post. The last one I saw was several years ago.
There are five main species of birds that use bluebird nesting boxes – the bluebird, tree swallow, house wren, chickadee and, unfortunately, the house sparrow (also known as the English sparrow, which is not really a sparrow, but an invasive species of weaver finch brought to the United States from Europe). The house sparrow is the number one obstacle for bluebirds as they compete for nest boxes.
If you have nest boxes and allow the house sparrow, an unprotected pest bird, to successfully raise a brood of young, you are actually doing more harm to the bluebird population than good! So if you’re not going to keep the house sparrow out, you might as well not place any bluebird nesting boxes on your property. House sparrows frequently trap bluebirds in a nest box and kill them, then build a nest right on top of the dead bluebird.
Placing a bluebird nest box in the open lawn, or along pasture fences, or parks and golf courses is the preferred location. Too close—within 50 feet of a hedgerow, woods, brushy field, or vines—then the highly aggressive House Wren will likely be present and eventually disrupt the bluebird’s active nesting. Tree swallows also like to use the nest box and are a welcome native bird, as is the chickadee.
The five species that use the nest box can be identified by looking at their completed nest. Bluebirds use fine grasses and pine needles (not feathers), Tree Swallows use grasses and line the nest with many feathers, Chickadees use moss, House Wrens use twigs, and House Sparrows use anything they can find and make a very messy nest with nesting material. line the sides of the box as if they were making a ball-shaped nest inside the box.
There is so much to learn about bluebirds. They bring so much springtime joy to our yards and farms. They are very pretty and their singing is always welcome.
If you’ve never seen a bluebird, you’re in for a treat. Placing the birdhouses in the right place will help you attract them to your garden.
Personally, I have enjoyed working with bluebirds for decades. I am active with the New York State Bluebird Society and invite you to consider joining this great bluebird and cavity-nesting bird organization.
I will have an outdoor bluebird nesting seminar in early April at my house. The date will be announced shortly. Please let me know if you would like to be contacted with this date or watch for my next article. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions you may have about bluebirds. (Call or text me at 585-813-2676) You can also visit the NYS Bluebird Society website.
Starting your spring off right with bluebirds around you is very rewarding. Make sure your nest boxes are cleaned and ready to use.
Hans Kunze is an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast who has been writing about birds and nature for over 30 years. He writes for The Daily News twice a month. Write to him at 6340 LaGrange Rd., Wyoming, NY 14591 or call (585) 813-2676.