Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Glade Sun

April 9, 2014

Enjoying Nature: Keeping up with the bluebirds

CROSSVILLE — There may not be a prettier bird than our Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis, (pronounced cee-AL-ee-a cee-AL-iss). Bluebirds stay here in Tennessee all year, and, in the winter, you will often see groups of five or six at a time coming to your suet or mealworm feeder. But this time of year, you'll generally only see two at a time, because once a pair establishes a territory, they will chase off all potential rivals. The territory they defend is usually defined around a potential nesting site.

Bluebirds are "secondary cavity nesters." That means that they can't excavate their own nest site; rather, they use an old woodpecker hole, or a hole in a tree caused by a dead branch, or a nest box provided by humans.

Bluebirds are one of the most common birds around here. However, in the early 1960's, bluebird populations were at their lowest levels in history, due primarily to competition for nest sites from non-native starlings and house sparrows. European house sparrows and European starlings are also cavity nesters, and because they are both much more aggressive than bluebirds, they took over most potential nest locations and caused a drastic reduction in bluebird populations. In addition, house sparrows will destroy bluebird eggs and kill young birds and even nesting bluebird mothers, if they catch them on the nest ... all because they want that nesting site for themselves. 

In the 1960's, most Americans had never seen a bluebird in their life ... and I was one of those. My dad built a couple of bluebird nest boxes. I told him that he was crazy because we hadn't seen a bluebird in western Pennsylvania, ever. The next summer, two of his bluebird boxes had bluebirds nesting in them. That was the key, the bluebirds just needed a place to live. If you put up a bluebird box, the chances are very high that you will get bluebirds nesting in it.

There are also conditions that will improve your success rate. Bluebirds like open grassy areas, like your yard, because they like to sit in a low tree and pounce on an insect that they spot on the ground. Additionally, multiple boxes placed less than 100 yards apart won't both get bluebirds because of territorial conflicts. So, if your next door neighbor has a bluebird box, most likely, only one of you will get bluebirds. However, all is not lost; other birds might use your birdhouse. Native chickadees, tufted titmice, and house wrens are also cavity nesters. House wrens will fill every nest box around with small sticks. I encourage house wrens to nest somewhere else by throwing these sticks out before they lay eggs, because house wrens will peck holes in bluebird eggs and even kill the young babies.

If the entrance hole to your nest box is exactly 1.5 inches in diameter, starlings can't fit in, but house sparrows can. I have seen the result of house sparrows killing bluebirds many times. It is legal to kill this non-native invasive species, and if you don't, it may be a death sentence for any other songbirds using your bluebird box.

Another bird that has benefited from bluebird boxes is the tree swallow. These beautiful blue-green birds will challenge bluebirds for the nest box, but they don't kill each other. In fact, two nest boxes 10-20 feet apart often attracts both bluebirds and tree swallows. Neither bird will let their own species nest that close, but bluebirds and tree swallows can live side-by-side without problems. Bluebirds eat mostly insects that they catch on the ground, while tree swallows catch almost any insect that flies. Having these insect eaters living nearby is better than a bug zapper and a gallon of insect spray.

Besides non-chemical insect control, one of the great advantages of putting a bluebird nest box in your yard is watching the birds build a nest, lay eggs, deliver thousands of insects to their young, and then successfully fledge a new generation of birds. Most birds will allow you to open the box and peek in from time to time to see what is happening. Just be careful when you stick your nose inside, because other creatures, besides birds, sometimes take up residence in bird houses. I have encountered many wasps nests, a few mouse nests, a snake or two, a bat, blow worm larvae, a flying squirrel nest, and even fire ants. Birds aren't the only critters who like to find a nice dry place to live.

If you enjoy nature, put up a birdhouse. It can be fun to keep track of who moves in, conflicts, sibling rivalry, failures, success, and just observing entertaining and crazy everyday experiences. Those are the things that go on every day in nature, not just with the Kardashians.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com

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