How to Attract Bluebirds of Happiness to Your Yard
This year I’ve been documenting the joyful journey of a darling Eastern bluebird duo and their precious offspring finally choosing a nesting box I set up a couple years ago in my increasingly rewilded yard. I have hundreds of bluebird photos from the embarrassing amount of time I spent watching them.
Bluebirds are an example of the conservation impact of restoring lost habitat in both public and private spaces. From 1920 to 1970 urban sprawl, pesticide use, fewer snags, , more outdoor cats, and other factors greatly affected the availability of natural nesting habitats for bluebirds. The main reason for the decline was the introduction of the invasive and aggressive European starlings. and house sparrows in the late 1800s. Both birds ultimately outcompeted bluebirds for nesting cavities. There was such a major bluebird population decline that extinction looked inevitable. In 1978 the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) was formed by citizen scientists and birders. (Check out their website for a wealth of information about bluebirds including nesting boxes) They focused on research, education, and raising awareness about ways to help bluebirds. The group’s ultimate success stabilizing the bluebird population came from increasing the availability of bluebird nesting boxes designed to keep other birds out. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of bluebirds is 23 million. Many of the breeding bluebirds in America now rely on manmade nest boxes.
Creating a Bluebird-Friendly Yard
The Audubon Society Wildlife Sanctuary program offers guidance for making a yard welcoming for all birds, including bluebirds. I can share from experience that going through the Audubon certification process is a fantastic way to ensure you are doing all you can to create an ideal habitat for birds. The Backyard Naturalist summed up the basic needs for birds perfectly – Food + Water + Shelter = Habitat. If you offer the following you may find a cheerful bluebird couple moving into your yard:
Food – The number one way to offer food to bluebirds is to keep your yard chemical free! It’s imperative to avoid using insecticides so bluebirds and any birds that visit your yard have a healthy food source to survive and feed their babies. Bluebird’s need to eat about 12% of their body weight each day! Their diet consists of 70% insects (e.g. grasshoppers and crickets) and 30% native berries (e.g. chokeberry and winterberry) and invertebrates (e.g. worms and grubs). Planting native fruit trees and shrubs can offer a food source for bluebirds. In late winter I see bluebirds in my native hackberry, dogwood and American holly trees. Bluebirds only eat on flat feeder surfaces, so I offer live and dried mealworms as well as suet nuggets at on my platform feeders to supplement the dearth of insects in my neighborhood where neighbors have multiple services blanketing their property in insect-killing chemicals.
Water Source – If you don’t have a pond or stream, have at least one birdbath available and keep it clean and refilled. During the summer months I fill my bird baths every day, sometimes twice-a-day. In the winter I also make sure there is always fresh water in clean birdbaths.
Shelter – Have places for bluebirds to perch such as trees. I’ve noticed bluebirds also like to sit on top of bird feeders, trellises, and low hanging open branches and wait for insects then drop to the ground to capture them with a technique called drop-hunting.
Open Area – Bluebirds prefer open yards; not dense thickets so try to offer them a nesting box facing an open space. My yard is small, but I placed a box in the most open area of it. It’s probably not ideal, but it works.
Discourage cats – Keep pet cats indoors! Even the sweetest of kitties will hunt for sport and play with prey until it no longer moves. If there are neighborhood cats or feral cats, try to make your yard as unpleasant as possible for them. Cats like smooth grassy areas and paths. Now that my yard is rewilded, cats rarely venture into it. I also intentionally put pinecones and small twigs sticking up in the ground around feeding and open areas. I’ve also places a thin tangle of fallen branches along the inside perimeter of my backyard fence as well as bits and pieces of dried stalks along the top of the fence so it’s not comfortable for cats to jump on the fence or into the yard. There are other cat deterrents if you search the internet. Just don’t use ones such as toxic repellents that will also make it unpleasant for wildlife to visit your yard.
When we think of bluebirds, we picture the bright blue male bluebird. The females are duller blue and a bit grey. Young fledglings are a bit fluffy and grayish with a black speckled breast. There is nothing sweeter or more affirmational than seeing parent bluebirds with their adorable fledglings in the yard!
Bluebirds are beloved. Songs, poems by poets including John Burroughs and Robert Frost, and art by a range of artists reference bluebirds. The link to Bluebird of Happiness Day on September 24 includes a nice history about the special place bluebirds have in our hearts. The idea that bluebirds are a symbol of happiness was originally held by the Chinese who thought the bird was an immortal protector and a symbol of the sun but many cultures including Native Americans have positive beliefs around the bluebird.
All the bluebirds in the Northeast and Canada migrate, but in Georgia some stay year round and some migrate further south. There is up to a 100% increase in bluebirds in the winter months.
Courtship and Nesting Habits
In Georgia, bluebirds have a long breeding season with up to three brood starting in February and often lasting through September. In February you can see bluebirds checking out potential nesting sites. The male bluebird finds the nesting site and carries materials in and out of the hole, perches on and around it, and flutters his wings to attract a female. Once she enters the nesting site with him, the pair bond and typically stay monogamous after that.
The funny part is once the female chooses a mate, he takes off while she weaves a nest. Nest construction mainly takes about 10 days.
The eggs hatch after 13 to 16 days when the male again returns to diligently help care for the babies.
Baby bluebirds are altricial, meaning they need to be taken care of once they are hatched. Both parents work hard all day feeding them their diet of insects for up to three weeks after they have left the nest which is 15-20 days after hatching. The fledglings are most vulnerable to cats and other predators when they first go out on their own.
Eastern bluebirds can live up to 6 to 10 years. The oldest known wild individual lived 10 years and 5 months. Unfortunately, most bluebirds die in the first year of life, making average lifespans much shorter than this. This is why we want bluebirds to have at least 2 or even 3 broods each year.
It looks like the bluebird couple in my yard are already in the process of raising another brood. Fingers crossed they’re successful. About 26% – 44% of bluebirds return to the same nesting site each year so if I’m lucky they’ll also be back next year. The story of the bluebird and my own little rewilding journey has shown me just how much power we have to contribute to habitat restoration where we live by creating a healthy backyard ecosystem. Hopefully this trend will continue to explode so all the other wild bird species and insects that are still in decline will rebound like the bluebirds.
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