There are few songbirds I know of that receive as much attention as the eastern bluebird. Their acceptance of artificial nest boxes has undoubtedly endeared them to many human admirers, to be sure, but so has the bird’s attractive physical features. Indeed, the males’ pleasant and warbling song and their beautiful blue plumage and rusty red breast make them an immediate favorite.
However, it hasn’t always been so good for the eastern bluebird. Habitat loss, as it is with most any species of wildlife, has affected bluebird distribution and abundance as well. But thanks to an army of conservation-minded individuals and groups, bluebird organizations, and wildlife agencies, bluebird populations are not nearly as troubled as they once were.
Throughout much of the east half of the United States across prime eastern bluebird habitats, countless numbers of ambitious projects have been implemented to assist in the bluebird’s recovery. For instance, as I already mentioned, miles of “bluebird trails”, complete with erected bluebird houses along their routes, have been established.
For example, the Audubon wildlife refuge that I once managed near Warren, Minnesota, of which the refuge’s successful bluebird trail was made possible through a grant from the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and its “Bluebird Recovery Program” (BBRP), helped to not only establish nesting boxes in order to attract bluebirds, but the trail itself became an instant attraction for birds and birders alike.
Officially known as the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota, the program was one of the first bluebird organizations in the United States. From its beginning as a formed committee of the Minneapolis Chapter of the Audubon Society in 1979, the organization has long since “fledged” and has grown to around 1,000 members. Moreover, some 12,000 people across the nation have requested information packets about bluebirds and bluebird recovery from BBRP.
An important and useful bit of information that can be found on BBRP’s website is titled “Top Ten Tips for Successful Bluebirding”. I believe it’s something everyone with an interest in attracting bluebirds should read before they install their first bluebird house. Even those of us who have been installing and monitoring boxes for years should do so.
Here are, starting with number one, the top 10 tips: “Commitment, Habitat, The Right Nest Boxes, Proper Mounting, Spacing, Welcome Chickadees and Tree Swallows, Dealing With House Sparrows and House Wrens, Nest Checks, Keep Bluebirds Safe, and Report Your Results”.
All of the tips are valuable, but a few especially stand out. Habitat is right up there and is critically important. Too often those well intentioned bird lovers buy or build a bluebird house expecting that its placement in their backyard or on a tree somewhere ensures a bluebird will become the eventual occupant.
Arriving in northern Minnesota usually by mid to late March (I’ve already observed a few), eastern bluebirds prefer open areas, not wetlands, with short or sparse grass that’s free of underbrush for potential nest sites. Prime locations tend to be rural, mowed or grazed areas, prairies, and near roadways. Bluebirds are fond of perching from power lines, fence posts, or nearby trees to scan the vicinity for insects, their primary food.
Spacing is another important consideration when erecting bluebird houses. It’s a frequent occurrence to observe clusters of bluebird houses along fence lines or backyards and fields. Although well meaning, such practices are not necessarily the best practice. Since bluebirds are territorial, more boxes spaced too closely together do not necessarily mean more bluebirds. It’s recommended to space bluebird houses at least 1,000 feet apart. Too many boxes often increases use by competing species, such as tree swallows.
Over the years I have often written about checking bird houses on an annual basis — sort of a “spring cleaning” if you will. Such a practice is good bluebird management and should be an active part of everyone’s bluebird program. Not only do such activities enable us to adequately check the condition of a nest box and make repairs if needed, it is also an appropriate time to clean the old nest material out.
We should also check bluebird boxes during the nesting season. Such visits provide us an opportunity to remove parasites (such as blowfly larvae), dead nestlings, and old nests before the second nesting season begins. In the fall, after bluebirds have migrated, doors can be left open to discourage mice or other unwanted tenants from using the structures.
Personally, I leave the doors of my bluebird nest boxes closed. Our Minnesota winters are hard enough, so why not provide shelter for other creatures during a critical time of the year? You can always “evict” the temporary guests in the springtime.
Such as it is, the eastern bluebird is well into the nesting season once again here in the Northland. Even so, it’s not too late to put out a box or two — and it’s always a good time to monitor your current nest boxes while evaluating your bluebird management program. So take a look at the top ten bluebirding tips. You’ll be glad you did as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
For more bluebird information, visit the BBRP website at http://bbrp.org/
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)