“Gonna find me a bluebird, let him sing me a song
‘Cause my heart’s been broken much too long.”
- Marvin Rainwater, Gonna Find Me a Bluebird Lyrics, 1955
I have worked at two golf courses, both in Hartford County, and on both properties and in the areas surrounding the courses, bluebirds are found in abundance. having large, open areas and woodland edges, undisturbed waste areas, abundant numbers of fruiting shrubs and trees, and sources of open water, the golf course is an ideal environment for many birds, including bluebirds. While they seemed to disappear from New England as farmland and other large open areas were lost to development or reforestation, bluebirds have made a dramatic comeback in recent years. Virtually unseen at our golf course, in the 1990’s, we saw our first mating pair in 1995. Since that time, we have put up numerous bluebird specific nesting boxes, and if tree swallows, house sparrows, or flying squirrels don’t get to them first, the bluebirds are in at least half of them. We sometimes see as many as 30 birds at a time flocking together as they have successful broods year after year.
Above: photo of male and female bluebirds- credit FNAL Fermi Lab
Eastern bluebirds are very social, and often large groups of them are seen flying from tree to tree or from tree trunk to the ground as they hunt for insects and fruit. They are adept at clinging to the trunks of trees, often perching there until they spot an insect to eat on the ground nearby. If you see a bird fly to the trunk of a tree, check it out. It may be a nuthatch, but perhaps you will discover it is a bluebird. I have found that, where there is one, there is often at least one more nearby. In the fall they are often seen together eating berries together with groups of cedar waxwings on cedars, Virginia creeper, and black gums, which are all naturally occurring native plants on our golf course. As both species of bird are social in nature, they don’t seem to mind each other’s presence on the same food plants.
During the summer, almost 70% of their diet consists of insects. They were a welcome addition to orchards in the past as they consumed many pests of fruit trees. This is why they are often found in old, neglected orchards as the insects are more abubdant because control measures for these pests have been abandoned along with the orchards themselves. Eastern bluebirds also eat fruits, including those of fruit of blackberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, dogwood, raspberry, mountain ash, pokeweed, Bradford pear, wild grapes and many other plants. In the fall they find berries of black gum, buckthorn, Eastern red cedar, Virginia creeper, and other trees and shrubs. Many bluebirds remain all winter, surviving on American holly, inkberry, winterberry, sumac, and other berries that remain throughout the winter monthes. Power lines can be a good place to find bluebirds during any season, as many food sources are available year- round.
This year many people reported seeing them on their suet feeders for the first time, perhaps due to the blizzard in february that covered many of the smaller trees and shrubs that would have provided some food. Every year can bring different conditions that may be extremely difficult for birds to survive, or perhaps make it much easier if fruit is especially abundant. As a side note to that- this year acorns were practically unavailable for squirrels, oaks having produced little because of cold weather during the flowering period. So squirrels were reduced to eating crabapples in the fall, leaving few for the birds that normally would eat them toward the end of winter.
Above: photo of male bluebird perched on tree trunk. Photo credit:www.biosurvey.ou.edu
Males bluebirds will select holes for nesting purposes that have been excavated by flickers, woodpeckers or chickadees, as well as properly constructed and mounted nest boxes. If your property has large open areas bordered by an area of woods with a rather open understory, place a bluebird house on a post or the remains of a broken tree trunk of a size similar to a fence post. Be sure the box is near the edge of the woods where it will get some sun during the day. Or place it out in the open, especially along fence lines in open fields. If possible, face the opening toward a perching spot, such as the next fencepost or a nearby tree with open, low branches. Avoid facing the hole toward the afternoon sun if the box is out in the open- face the hole to the north or east if possible. Also, keep the opening from facing prevailing winds. The ideal situation is to face the opening toward a tree or shrub that is within 100 feet of the box. This will provide the fledglings with a safe destination for their first flight. The first time I saw a nesting pair, they had selected a rotten trunk of a tree about 6 feet high and 5 inches in diameter about twenty feet inside the woods. The entrance hole was at least four inches in diameter. So you can see that nesting preferences are not necessarily “ by the book”.
Bluebirds do not need a perching post under the nest box hole to enter or leave the box and may avoid nesting in boxes that have such perches. Leave the inside surface rough so birds will be able toget a grip to exit the house. Drill a few vent holes on the upper sides, and drain holes on the bottom. Insert a hardware wire support to keep the nest about 1 ½- 2 inches off the bottom of the box. This may help keep blow fly larvae from crawling back on the nestling birds.
Photo above left: hiltonpond.org Photo above right: laspilitas.com
After the bluebirds have successfully fledged the first brood, clean out the old nest. The birds will build another if they have a second brood. If you forget, do not worry. I have actually opened a box in the early spring to clean it out only to find a female sitting on eggs in a second nest she had built on top of the old one. But is certainly best to keep the box clean. If other undesirable birds start to build their nests in the boxes, keep pulling the stuff out. We put three nest boxes within thirty yards of each other and get a family of tree swallows, one of house sparrows, and one of bluebirds every year. After cleaning them out, the birds select their nesting sites, and all are satisfied.
If you want to see bluebirds, check out the area along Horse Barn Hill Road where they usually can be found year- round. Another spot is the little cemetery on Bone Mill Road in Mansfield where they often perch on top of the old gravestones, especially from late March on through summer. Or just keep your ears tuned in for their distinctive ” wheedle wheedle ” as you are out and about. Happy hunting!
Pamm Cooper UConn Home & Garden Education Center