by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden
It was a Sunday afternoon in early March. It was much warmer than any other March that I could recall in my history. I had just returned from church and stepped out of my car to go into the house when that familiar and unmistakable sound stopped me in my tracks. My heart skipped a beat with excitement and I knew what it meant. My official harbinger of spring had arrived. Scanning the still bare trees, I caught a glimpse of its silhouette lofting from branch to branch. My delight suddenly turned to concern, realizing I wasn’t ready!
I ran into the garage, scrounging behind various dusty and dirty garden tools and supplies, still hibernating from the winter. Reaching beyond the clutter, I grabbed the birdhouse still affixed atop a metal pole. I ran out the door to the middle of the yard, carefully putting it in position. Grabbing the pole and leveraging my entire weight on it to thrust it into the ground, only to realize that even though the temperatures were summer-like, the ground was still frozen only a few inches beneath the surface. Running back into the garage, I searched for my ice pick, returning to feverishly pound a hole in the ground. Pounding. Pushing. Straightening. Repositioning. I finally got the house in place and secure in the ground. A sense of satisfaction overtook me and I stepped back to admire my work, expecting my gardening friend to flutter down from a branch on cue. It was then I realized I was still wearing a dress and my Sunday shoes.
There is one migratory bird that delights me more than any other. The bluebird. I suppose it’s because I don’t have any children of my own, that I become a little more obsessed than the average person. I care for these little creatures as though they were a beloved family pet. To me, they are. I nurture them, provide a home for them, and try to protect them from the enemy, sadly, sometimes unsuccessfully. I even feed them, and they’ve become accustom to my presence in the garden. The Eastern Bluebird is becoming more common in our country landscapes. Not too many years ago the very existence of bluebirds was threatened by loss of nesting habitat by deforestation and the use of DDT on farmlands. In recent years, however, there’s been a resurgence of their population as the use of such chemicals has been banned and many people are setting up bluebird trails. I like to think that I’ve played a small role in their comeback, even if it is just one little family of bluebirds in my front yard.
Bluebirds live in the country and prefer open spaces. So, if you live in the city, the likelihood of you getting a family of bluebirds is doubtful. They are cavity nesters, meaning they need a house or abandoned woodpecker hole to nest. They cannot excavate a hole on their own like a woodpecker though, so in nature, they depend on a symbiotic relationship with other cavity nesters to provide their home. They also compete with other cavity nesters and are often threatened by other birds. The most destructive competitor is the common house sparrow.
House sparrows are known to destroy bluebird nests and even kill the adult birds and their nestlings. They are enemy #1. While it may seem difficult, the best solution to this problem is to eliminate the house sparrows. Since they are a non-native species, it is legal to destroy them. Just one experience of finding a bludgeoned lifeless mother bluebird atop a brood of dead babies will quickly dispel any fondness you may have once had for house sparrows.
Other deterrents involve using fishing line or other tactics, some with minimal results. 18 Another competitor is the common starling. Dissuading them is as easy as using a bluebird house that has the proper hole dimension of 1½” in diameter. The proper size hole will insure that starlings will not enter the house. However, if you still have problems with starlings, it is also a non-native species and can be legally removed or destroyed.
When trying to attract bluebirds, go the extra measure to make sure you are using a house with proper dimensions and ventilation. The competitor I most often encounter, however, is the common house wren. Unlike the house sparrow and starling, wrens are a protected migratory species and it is illegal to destroy or remove them. Some wrens co-exist fine with bluebirds, while some are more competitive and will stuff boxes full of sticks and sometimes destroy the eggs. If you find your bluebird eggs strewn on the ground with puncture holes, you can be assured it is a wren. I have mourned the loss of more than one bluebird clutch because of wrens. The best deterrent is to place your birdhouse as far away from wooded areas as possible.
The most difficult competitor to dissuade, however, is nature itself. In spring, freezing temperatures threaten young nestlings. I have lost three broods to hypothermia in the past. They are most susceptible when they are between 5- 9 days old. This is when they are too big for the mother to sit on them, yet they do not have many feathers and are not big enough to produce enough heat on their own to keep warm. This year, I was determined not to lose a brood to the cold. I purchased a new house made of wood (more insulated than the plastic house I previously used). I went to even greater lengths, wrapping three sides of the house in thin pipe insulation. For five nights when temperatures dipped below 40 degrees, I went to even greater lengths, inserting a pocket hand warmer beneath the house and covering with more insulation to provide some bottom heat for the babies. Desperate? Yes. Successful? Yes! I had a brood of four babies fledge! Bluebirds lay anywhere from 3-6 eggs, and rarely more. The largest brood I have ever had was six. I monitor the babies by checking on them daily until they are about 12 days old, after which it is no longer recommended to check them for fear they may prematurely fledge.
I also feed my bluebirds. You can purchase dried meal worms at Fleet Farm in the bird feeding section. I simply soak a small handful of them for about a half hour and then place them near the feeder. The bluebirds have become accustom to the daily morning ritual of me providing them breakfast. They hover above me as I place the worms in a dish on my driveway, and shortly after turning away to go back inside, they’re already picking worms out of the dish and flying up in the trees to feed their babies. My latest battle is with a fat robin who keeps stealing my bluebird’s worms. So, I found an old wrought iron decorative bird cage and put it over the dish of worms. The bluebirds can fit through the rungs, while the robin grows increasingly frustrated as it tries to squeeze through, unable to reach the worms. I chuckle at the sight of it.
The mother bluebird is starting to build another nest now, and I’m hopeful she’ll have another brood, assuming the wren leaves them alone. I removed the previous nest as soon as the babies fledged. There are entire books on bluebirds and how to attract them to your yard. I could go on and on in this article, kind of like a mom likes to talk about her kids. So, for those who would like to learn more, I’ll direct you to a great website I have found. On it, you can learn more about the bluebird of happiness, research proper birdhouses and problem-solve. It is www.sialis.org. It will tell you all you ever wanted to know about this garden companion.