Eastern Bluebirds have been enjoyed and respected throughout history as legends within many cultures. Native Americans believe Bluebirds are the symbol of Spring. The Cherokee believed they predicted or even controlled the weather. Navajo and Pueblo tribes associated bluebirds with the sun and refer to them as “Son of the Sun,” but no matter what anyone calls them, bird enthusiasts enjoy watching these brilliant, royal blue song birds flit through the sky up to 17 miles per hour doing their Spring things. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, we recently admitted a nest of Eastern Bluebirds after a home owner found the nest on the ground with four newborns in it. No one knows the back story, but that happens quite often when rescued Spring babies are brought through our door at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport. The very clean, tiny bluebirds were immediately examined and found injury free. They were immediately placed in a nursery incubator, hydrated and fed a diet of mealworms. Two thirds of a bluebird’s diet consists of caterpillars, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and spiders in the wild, so mealworms substitute nicely in place of what Mom or Dad would have brought home for them. On rare occasions Eastern Bluebirds have been recorded eating salamanders, shrews, snakes, lizards and tree frogs. In fall and winter, bluebirds eat large amounts of fruit including mistletoe, sumac, blueberries, black cherry, tupelo, currants, wild holly, dogwood berries, hackberries, honeysuckle, bay, pokeweed and juniper berries. Male Eastern Bluebirds are vivid, deep blue above and rusty or brick-red on their throat and breast. The blue in birds always depends on light sources, and males often look plain gray-brown from a distance. Duller but elegant in color females are bluish-gray above and tail with a subdued orange-brown breast. The Eastern Bluebird is a small thrush with a big, rounded head, large eyes, plump body and very alert posture. The flight wings are long, but their tail feathers and legs are fairly short. The black bill is short and straight. You will see Eastern Bluebirds perched very erect on telephone wires, posts and low branches in open country where they scan the ground for prey. They feed by swooping down to the ground onto insects which they can spy from 60 feet or more away. They can also snatch an insect in mid air. Bluebirds commonly use nest boxes humans provide (4 to 6 inches square with a 1.75 inch entrance hole) as well as old woodpecker holes that are several feet above the ground. Eastern Bluebirds live in meadows and openings surrounded by trees that offer suitable nest cavities. With the proliferation of nest boxes and bluebird trails, bluebirds are now a common sight along roads, field edges, golf courses and other open areas. If bluebirds remain in a region for the winter, they usually group and seek cover in heavy thickets, orchards or other areas in which adequate food, water and cover resources are available. Mating occurs in the spring and summer. As a courtship display, the male may sing and flutter his wings in front of the female with tail partly spread, and while perched close together, pairs may preen each other’s feathers. The male may even feed his chosen female and bring her nesting materials. Eastern Bluebirds are usually monogamous and the pair will return to the same nesting area each year. A mature female typically raises two broods each season with the first brood staying close by to continue learning bluebird ways, help raise the new youngsters and to occasionally beg for supplemental feedings. Eastern bluebirds are very social birds, and at times they gather in flocks of a hundred or more, but they are territorial during breeding season and will defend their feeding and nesting area by attacking (grabbing at the other bird’s feet, pulling at feathers with their beak and hitting them with their wings) to drive them away. Construction of a nest is done primarily by the female and takes around 10 days to complete. The nests are small, cup-like structures lined with grass, feathers, pine needles, stems and hair. The female incubates the 3 to 7 light blue or, rarely, white eggs, which hatch after 13 to 16 days. Although the male is quite the vocalist, he will refrain from singing during incubation to prevent predators from finding the nest location. Bluebirds are born naked except for sparse tufts of dingy gray down, their eyes are closed and they are a bobbing mess of clumsy, so the young cannot care for themselves after hatching. The female broods the chicks for up to seven days. Both parents are very neat housekeepers who remove the infants’ fecal sacs and continually refresh the nest with new nesting materials. Fledglings are grayish in color, with speckled breasts. The blue color becomes more prominent and the speckles on their breasts disappear as they mature. Fledglings then leave the nest 15 to 20 days after hatching. Both parents cooperate in raising the young, which they feed a diet consisting almost entirely of insects. Bluebirds may begin breeding the summer after they are hatched. Bluebird numbers declined significantly during the 60’s due to loss of habitat and predation but have bounced back due the initiatives of human intervention to include the mounting of Bluebird boxes and the creation of birding trails. The global breeding population number has now been placed at 22 million, with 86 percent of bluebirds spending part of the year in the United States. Eastern Bluebirds don’t visit feeders often, if at all, but they are a great prospect for nest boxes if you have the space to put one up in your yard, and if your yard isn’t too hemmed in by trees or houses. And remember, they do eat insects, so a few bluebirds in your area will help keep those pesky critters at bay. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Bluebirds are also a symbol of happiness! Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure it’s up well before breeding season and attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Natural predators of eggs and nestlings include flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, snakes and chipmunks. Adult bluebirds have to be on the lookout for owls, falcons, domestic cats and most varieties of hawk. An Eastern Bluebird’s longevity is 6 to 10 years if they beat the odds of predation, extremely cold weather or starvation. The oldest recorded Eastern Bluebird was 10 years and 5 months. So, binoculars up, everyone! We don’t want to miss that streak of vibrant blue happiness jetting through the sky and across the sun!
Happy Summer, Everyone!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of “Save Them All“