Bluebirds Now Thriving

A generation ago, gardeners helped save bluebirds from extinction. Continue the tradition by offering these beauties food and shelter.

With wildlife endangered around the world, it’s nice to hear about animals whose populations were once rare but have now recovered. It’s even better when that recovery is the result of gardeners’ efforts. Such is the tale of the bluebirds.

North America has three species of bluebird: eastern, western, and mountain. The latter two live in the West, and their ranges overlap. The males have beautiful sky blue feathers on their heads, backs, and wings. Easterns and westerns have rust-colored breasts (easterns also have rusty necks and westerns have rusty shoulders), and mountain bluebirds are all blue. The females of all three species have the same colors but are not as vivid.

Bluebird populations steadily declined from the 1920s to the 1970s, as woods, grasslands, and old farms were replaced by suburban sprawl and industrial agriculture. Such development decimated the plants that provide bluebirds with food and nesting spots, and allowed exotic birds such as European starlings and English house sparrows to invade bluebird habitat and outcompete the native birds for the remaining nesting areas.

Fortunately, a movement to save bluebirds got underway in the 1960s. Gardeners and bird lovers began planting native species that bluebirds rely upon for food, and created and monitored special bluebird nest boxes. Since then, bluebird populations have recovered. Here’s how to make sure bluebirds continue to thrive:

Learn how to feed a bluebird.

Bluebirds won’t visit a feeder filled with seeds. They eat fruits and insects. That makes them harder to attract than other birds. You can buy feeders designed specifically to hold mealworms or waxworms, which will attract bluebirds and other insect-eating species. Or you can grow your own bluebird restaurant.

Bluebirds favor open fields bordered by brushy vegetation. You can make your yard more attractive to them by creating a border of shrubs and small trees at the edges of your lawn.

If those plants provide berries, so much the better. Choose native plants, because they support more insects than exotic plants do. (Insects are particularly important when bluebirds have babies to feed.) Using native plants also minimizes the risk that bluebirds will spread seeds of exotic plants from your yard into wild areas, where they can become troublesome invasives.

Build a nest box.

The real key to helping bluebirds is to install nest boxes that mimic the cavities in which bluebirds naturally nest. Design is critical in keeping out exotic birds and predators. The nest box should have drainage and ventilation holes and an overhanging roof to keep out rain, wind, and direct sunlight. The box should have an entrance hole 1½ inches in diameter. It should be mounted on a pole with a predator guard, and should not have a perch (snakes and raccoons quickly learn that nest boxes mean an easy meal, and perches give them access to the box).

Nothing is more rewarding than watching bluebirds gobble berries and feed insects to their babies right outside your window.

Other Blue Birds

Not all blue birds are bluebirds. In North America, there are several other birds with blue feathers.

Blue jays live in the East and have bright blue backs and white breasts and faces with black barring.

Stellar’s jays live in the West and are a much darker Navy blue with sooty black heads.

Scrub and pinyon jays are also blue but lack the head crest of the other two jays. All jays are larger, louder, and less shy than bluebirds.

The tiny cerulean warbler overlaps range with the eastern bluebird, but is smaller, lives in the treetops, and is rarely seen.

Blue grosbeaks have a chestnut band on their wings and have much larger beaks for crushing seeds.

There are three blue bunting species: lazuli buntings of the West have white and black bands on their wings, blue buntings are navy blue and live in Mexico and extreme southern Texas, and the indigo bunting of the East is a stunning jewel-tone shade that’s even more brilliant than bluebirds’ color.

Photo: Corbis