Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Bluebirds in the Adirondacks

Last month I was talking with a friend about my bear invasion and asked if she’d had any problems at her house yet. She told me no, and that she was leaving her feeders up because she wanted to get some bluebirds at her house. Are you putting out mealworms, I asked. No, just birdseed, she replied. When I told her that bluebirds are insect eaters, not seed eaters, she told me that another local woman had told her that her feeders were loaded with bluebirds, and had been all winter. AH, I said, she means blue jays.

Not all blue birds are bluebirds.

One of the first things I do when I give a bluebird presentation is show pictures of blue jays, indigo buntings, and blue grosbeaks. All three of these birds have lovely blue feathers (which technically are not blue; when it comes to feathers, the color blue is a result of light and feather structure, not an actual pigment), but there the similarity ends.

Blue jays are members of the crow family, and can be found in the Adirondacks year round. They are fairly large birds, with pointed crests on their heads and long tails out behind. The light blue feathers are nicely offset with black and white markings, and their loud “JAY!” is unmistakable. These birds are frequent visitors to bird feeders, hoovering up seeds like there’s no tomorrow (they can store numerous seeds in their throat pouches for later consumption), and especially like peanuts. You can have a lot of fun with blue jays by setting up Rube-Goldberg-like contraptions for them to figure out in order to get to a peanut reward.

Indigo buntings are a delight to see, mostly because they are uncommon. When one shows up, it may linger for a day or two at your bird feeder, but then it moves on. I’ve only seen indigo buntings a couple times in my life, but their solid almost-neon blue coloration will remain in my mind’s eye forever.

Based on range maps, blue grosbeaks are unlikely to be seen this far north. Like their cousins the evening and rose-breasted grosbeaks, they have, well, gross (large) beaks, which are handy for opening large seeds and cones.

The bluebird, however, is a seasonal visitor that, given the right set of circumstances, you can see every spring and summer in the Adirondack Park. Those circumstances are habitat: they like open spaces with short grass, and they need cavities in which to nest.

Farmland, cemeteries, golf courses, and yards are all ideal places for attracting bluebirds because the land is open and the grass is usually kept short. Why is short grass so important? Bluebirds hunt for insects by perching on a branch, or fencepost, or tombstone, and watching the grass for movement. When an insect is spotted, the bird flies down to the ground to grab it. If the grass is too long, the bird has a harder time finding its prey, and the insects have a greater chance to escape capture.

Historically, bluebirds nested in cavities excavated (usually by woodpeckers) in rotting trees, but people began cutting down these trees. Then invasive species, like house sparrows, house finches and starlings, started to compete for the remaining nest sites. Bluebird numbers took a real nosedive. The invention of the nestbox in the 1930s, and the subsequent establishment of bluebird trails, has made a real difference in bluebird populations, to the point where today just about anyone has the chance to see a bluebird, something our parents and grandparents could not claim when they were younger.

For the last week or so I’ve been on the lookout for bluebirds on our local golf course, where I maintain a small trail of about eight nestboxes. Two evenings ago I saw a flash of blue flit over the pocket wetland on the fourth fairway, and last night I heard the unmistakable call of several bluebirds while the dog and I traversed the first fairway. They were back. I watched a pair of bluebirds flying from the treetops to the box tops, no doubt checking out the real estate and the local housing market.

Back in April I’d made sure the boxes were cleaned out and repaired (one had to be completely replaced), and last week I noticed a couple boxes had been filled with moss: black-capped chickadees were taking up housekeeping. Last night I peeked into one of these to see if the chickadee was present, and there she was, peeking back out at me. I slowly closed the box and left her to her thoughts.

Most of my boxes are put up in pairs, a technique recommended in areas where tree swallows are present. Tree swallows are native birds that also nest in tree cavities, and bluebird nestboxes are the perfect size for these helpful insectivores. Unfortunately, they are very territorial birds and have been known to evict bluebirds from their nests, even going so far as breaking eggs and bodily removing nestlings. By pairing up your nest boxes, you give the bluebirds a chance, because tree swallows will move into one box and prevent other tree swallows from moving into the second. Bluebirds who have been evicted may move into the second box and try again.

It was after 8:00 last night when the dog and I finally got back home, and I was delighted to see a bluebird fly from the utility lines towards my yard, where I have five more nestboxes set up. To encourage the bluebirds to choose one of my boxes, I usually purchase a bag of mealworms, which I keep in my ‘fridge and slowly dole out to these would-be neighbors. This can be a real boon once babies hatch, for finding enough food for their gaping maws can be a challenge for the parents, especially if they are faced with a cool and wet summer. By providing mealworms early in the season, I can establish a food source for these prospective parents and perhaps sway their choice in nesting sites.

I encourage everyone who has a patch of open land to build (or purchase) a couple nestboxes and put them up. You’ll want to mount them on posts about five feet high, and ideally away from trees predators can use to gain access. Predator guards placed around the posts will also help protect your birds from raccoons, squirrels, snakes and cats. Make sure your nestbox has a door that you can open so you can monitor the box and its inhabitants. Checking your nestbox once a week is usually enough to make sure your birds are safe and doing well.

Once the eggs are laid, it’ll be about two weeks until they hatch, and another two to three weeks until the babies fledge. You’ll want to stop opening the box when the nestlings are about ten days old to avoid startling them into fledging before they are ready to fly. Keep a small bowl of mealworms handy, and you will have a happy bluebird family close at hand.

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson described the bluebird in his 1903 book Birds of Ohio as “Reflecting heaven from his back and the ground from his breast, he floats between sky and earth like the winged voice of hope.” What a wonderful description of these chirpy backyard friends.


Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.



Tags: ,


5 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:
  2. Solidago says:
  3. BRFvolpe says:
  4. Anonymous says:
  5. Ellen Rathbone says: