story and photos by Laurie Dirkx
New York is quite proud to boast the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) as its state bird. They bring to mind such warm and iconic thoughts: the bird of happiness or how they carry the sky on their back, for instance. Some even sing of them on their shoulder as they stroll along on a beautiful day. Undoubtedly, it is when bluebirds fly over the rainbow in the cherished lyrics Dorothy sings in “The Wizard of Oz” that we know we’ve struck gold, er blue – in having this bird represent our state. It just doesn’t get much better.
That is, unless you’re a landlord to the eastern bluebird. Yes, those who maintain bluebird nest boxes are endearingly considered “landlords” of their resident bluebirds. This is again, another source of pride. There are those so dedicated to assuring successful nesting bluebirds that they maintain what are called bluebird trails. They house several nest boxes in areas where bluebirds flourish, such as wildlife refuges, or forever-wild lands. In fact, it is due to these dedicated volunteers that the eastern bluebird’s numbers are as strong as they are.
The sad decline of their population began back in the late 1800s, after the European starling and house sparrow were introduced in the United States. Like the bluebird, starlings and house sparrows are cavity nesters. The competition for nesting sites, along with an increasing loss of habitat, led to such low numbers that most people couldn’t say they had ever seen a bluebird. Thankfully, this is not so much the case anymore.
The eastern BLUEBIRD is
popular with birdwatchers
Hopefully, the next time you’re out around open country with some trees dispersed, you’ll keep your eyes peeled for that bright blue of the male’s feathers. He’ll also sport ruddy hues on his chest. Per usual in birds, the female is drabber in her coloring, though in the spring she can also have some beautiful blue to show off. You’re likely to sight them when they dart down to an insect on the ground, before they retreat back to their perch. That flight of streaking blue will catch your attention.
When I had first moved to my home in 2001, I had all the great landmarks for bluebird residents, including both open and wooded areas. Owning a horse helped, too. The expanse of pasture fencing that backed up to woods became the ideal habitat for eastern bluebirds. Still, it was five years before the first pair set up house on my property.
There was much for me to learn in the beginning, especially how to keep the dreaded house sparrow from entering into the nest box. Since the advent of designated bluebird nest boxes, starlings are not an issue: the opening diameter does not permit a starling to fit.
Once you see the damage a house sparrow can cause, you become mama grizzly protecting your bluebirds. They horrifically peck bluebirds to death by trapping them inside the cavity – whether it is eggs, hatched young, or the adults. They are all in jeopardy of a house sparrow’s aggression.
In the warm months, bluebirds forage on insects. During the cold months, should they choose not to migrate, the bluebird forages on any remaining berries from sumac, honeysuckle, and other native fruit-bearing plants. To supplement nutrition, many landlords keep mealworms on hand. The produce drawer in my refrigerator contains upwards of 5,000 mealworms tucked nicely in a plastic tub with air holes, right next to my horse’s carrots.
Each morning, even before my first sip of tea, you’ll find me outdoors whistling. I’ve fed many generations of bluebirds through the years, and when I first begin feeding them mealworms, I whistle a certain whistle each time they feed. This way, at any time, I can call them in for visitors to see. How amazing it is to see them flying in as a result of my prompt!
I cannot get near my bluebirds as they are by no means domesticated, but they do light on branches near their nest box; waiting to come closer once I place mealworms in their feeder. I’ve noticed that on the days I might be running late, they fly nearer to my home in view of my kitchen window as if they are begging me to come out.
I very much consider them part of my family. Attending to them is part of my daily routine, whether it is assuring all predators are kept away, that their nests are still dry after a heavy rain, and many other reasons in between. Mostly, I attend to them each day because they make me happy, in a New York kind of way.
How to keep house sparrows away from blue bird nest boxes
The “sparrow spooker” is comprised of several flimsy plastic ribbons on a wood stake with arms that extend out over the top of the nest box. The flapping ribbons in the breeze are enough to keep house sparrows away.
It should but put in place only after the bluebirds have eggs in the box, because they will not abandon the eggs no matter how much the ribbons blow around.
Note: no sparrow other than the house sparrow, also known as the English sparrow, is a problem.