Little Blues

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Little Blues
Click to view this article in ADVENTURESS magazine spring issue.

Creating a bluebird trail for your home

Last year, I decided to make a bluebird trail for our acreage. While I got so much fun out of monitoring the parent bluebirds and watching the eggs turn into baby chicks and grow until their “fly-off” day, I also discovered why bluebirds desperately need help from humans in the first place.

The mother bluebird laying on her eggs in the nest. She’ll produce three to six eggs, laying one a day.
The mother bluebird laying on her eggs in the nest. She’ll produce three to six eggs, laying one a day.

Where we are today

With so much land being cleared for housing and developing, old trees cut down and wooden fence posts replaced with metal posts, natural nesting cavities for bluebirds, and other birds like them, has been greatly reduced.

To increase this problem, two imported species – the house sparrow and the European starling, were introduced into North America. These birds are also cavity nesters; however, they are very aggressive. House sparrows, which are small enough to enter any hole bluebirds can, will chase them off, and the larger starlings will out-compete them for natural nesting cavities.

The bluebird population has greatly decreased, and the most important step we can take to help bring them back is by providing nesting sites by starting a bluebird trail.

Getting started

A bluebird trail is a series of bluebird boxes placed along a prescribed route. This is a great outdoor project people of all ages can enjoy and learn from nature, while helping nature. While we’ve been taught not to disturb the nests of many birds, bluebirds will not be scared away by your visits and you should actually not put up a bluebird box unless you plan to frequently monitor it.

A store-bought ready-to-go bluebird box.
A store-bought ready-to-go bluebird box.

Bluebird Box

Your trail should consist of at least three boxes and not just any birdhouse will do. A good bluebird house should be well ventilated, easy to monitor and easy to clean. Cedar and redwood are ideal, though other types of wood can be used as long as it is not treated lumber (toxic content). Boxes can be painted or stained the traditional blue or a light color.

Bluebird boxes should never have a perch, which attracts sparrows and wrens. It should consist of a round entrance hole of 1-1/2 inches or oval hole of 1-3/8 x 2-1/4 inches for the Eastern Bluebird. You can find good bluebird houses at stores, ready to put up or ready to paint/stain, but do check if they are easy enough to access, but durable enough to protect from predators.

The eggs hatch 12 to 14 days after incubation starts.
The eggs hatch 12 to 14 days after incubation starts.

The Perfect Spot

Habitat is a key factor for your bluebird trail. During the summer, bluebirds feed mainly on insects, so they prefer open rural areas with scattered trees and low ground cover. Ideal habitats also include perch sites, such as a fence line or tree branches where they can search for food. Pastures, acreages, cemeteries, golf courses and parks away from human traffic are all good locations. Avoid brushy and heavily wooded areas, which is the habitat of the aggressive house wren, and farmsteads and feedlots, which are areas of the house sparrow. Also avoid areas of heavy pesticide use. Think about all of these things when choosing a site for your boxes and you’ll have better luck in successfully housing a pair of bluebirds.

You’ll want to mount the nesting box so the entrance is approximately 5 feet off the ground. Face the box away from prevailing winds and toward a tree or shrub that is within 100 feet (a landing spot for the young once they first leave). It’s best to have your boxes in place by mid-March as the bluebirds return from their winter migration and look for nesting sites. They will then usually nest in late March or early April. However, you can also put up boxes later in the season as bluebirds usually have two to three clutches.

Do not open box after nestlings are 14 days old.
Do not open box after nestlings are 14 days old.

It’s time! Monitoring

This is amazing and SO FUN! I honestly got lucky when it came to my first bluebird house. I had a pair of bluebirds in the house within a few days of mounting it! I also did not have a single problem with the first brood. I had a blast visiting them, photographing their growth as well as setting up a trail camera to view the work of these great parents.

I will say I got so lucky on this first brood that I didn’t understand why bluebirds needed monitoring and starting wondering if I was just doing more harm scaring the parents off the nest each time I visited. I starting backing away from monitoring more and more and soon found out the hard way.

The wren’s nest on top of the bluebird nest.
The wren’s nest on top of the bluebird nest.

Know your nests

Check your bluebird boxes at least once a week during nesting season, until the chicks are close to fledging. You do not need to worry like I did about scaring the parents. You are actually helping them and they aren’t going to leave because of it. During my second brood, the parents choose another one of my bluebird boxes on the trail. Their sweet little grass cup shaped nest was perfect and full of eggs. The next time I monitored it, all the eggs were destroyed and the nest was packed full of sticks with a bunch of white/tan eggs speckled with light brown. A house wren had showed up. And because I didn’t monitor enough, it’s too late for the bluebirds and I leave the wren eggs alone. Their original nesting house was also taken over by house sparrows that I also didn’t catch in time. Luckily my bluebird parents moved to my third box and were able to lay their eggs.

Dangers to nests

After these issues, I got back on track monitoring my bluebirds. Four more baby bluebirds successfully flew out of the second brood. For the third clutch, the bluebirds (as did the wrens) stayed in the same houses. However, I had an awful discovery this time. I walked up to the nest with the baby wrens and found the nest raided. The box I bought was well-built, but the black piece that held the door shut, which I thought was metal, ended up being plastic that could be bent back. I had not been able to tell that. Raccoons scratched along the house until they were able to pull the door back because of this plastic piece. They ate all the wren babies.

I was very upset, but thought maybe it was karma that they took over the nest and I was glad it saved my bluebirds lives then. I would be able to fix this problem now that I knew it existed. However, I walked to the nest with my bluebird babies to discover an even worse sight. The box looked shredded with scratches all over it, and although they could not break into this door, they shook all the babies to death. I was devastated.

Moving forward

Even though there were tough times for the bluebirds, I am so happy to have had eight baby bluebirds successfully fly off last year. I am delighted to see them already back and starting to nest this spring. So far, I have fixed any issues with the bluebird boxes, checked them frequently and kept control of the raccoons on our property. Every baby bluebird that flies off is a success and I received so much joy from watching them. I will continue this bluebird trail for many years to come. ~JP

A trail camera photo of the parent bluebirds after a spring rain.
A trail camera photo of the parent bluebirds after a spring rain.

Photos from my 2015 bluebirds