THINKING LIKE A BLUEBIRD

Last summer some friends gave us a bluebird house.  At that point, I knew one thing about bluebirds – they are featured in a song that includes the words zippety doo dah.

Not surprisingly, zip was exactly how many bluebirds we interested in our spiffy, new birdhouse.

Now I am becoming a birdbrain, thanks to a really useful book, Birdscaping in the Midwest: a Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds by Mariette Nowak,  and a great presentation at the Madison Garden Expo last Saturday by Kent Hall of Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, BRAW .

Eastern Bluebird (photo credit ibm4381 Flickr)

We humans have given bluebirds quite a rollercoaster ride.  At first European settlement opened up lots of savanna-like habitats which bluebirds love, and the flicker of blue and their heart-lightening song were everywhere.  Then we brought in house sparrows in the 1850s and starlings in the 1890s, and it was like two motorcycle gangs moved onto the bluebirds’ block.  Then we dozed their houses.  The dead trees with conveniently carved woodpecker holes were cut down to clear more farmland and housing sites.  Finally wooden fence posts were traded in for metal poles, and bluebird home sites were gone.

No place to live and less to eat.    Bluebirds eat insects in the grass all summer long.   DDT and other pesticides didn’t do them any favors. They live on berries in the winter, but if an ice storm coats all the berries too thickly, bluebirds will starve.  There were some disastrous ice-storm-related die-offs.  their numbers plummeted by 90 percent. By the 1970s there was only one very uneasy bluebird  hanging on in the degraded habitat that used to support 10.

Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds did not fly.

But the good news is that human intervention is turning the tide again, and this time in a good way – thanks to the National Bluebird Restoration Association .  Wisconsin,’s BRAW is a leader in bluebird restoration.

Today I am mailing in my membership to BRAW so I can learn how to make bluebirds welcome and plentiful on my little corner of Wisconsin.

WHERE BLUEBIRDS NEED TO LIVE

Their ideal neighborhood has short grass (up to about 20 inches tall) teaming with insects.  Each nesting pair needs about a football field-size space to maintain bluebird harmony.  They are perch hunters, so they need tree and shrub branches in the vicinity.  They particularly like dead or dying branches where the leaves do not impede their view of the bug buffet below.

They also enjoy a shrubby thicket at the edge of the open area, which can offer handy perches, and if it is a berry bush, it will provide food when bugs are scarce.

Bluebirds like to light in a tree and check things out before they enter their nest, and their fledglings will need a nearby landing spot for their first flights. You can stick a small dead tree into the ground near a good feeding area, and it will be greatly appreciated by young and old.

And while we are talking about the chicks, baby birds actually grow bigger than their parents.  They are packing it on to tide themselves over during the lean times while they are learning to fly and hunt.  So it’s important to have an oval rather than round entrance.  Otherwise they may be trapped in the birdhouse and die there.  This is NOT why we put up birdhouses!

Western Bluebird (photo credit kevincole Flickr)

There are so many important details to know about bluebird houses that I am just going to put some websites at the bottom of this post.

SOME MYTHS THAT KEPT MY BIRDHOUSE EMPTY LAST SUMMER:

I can put up a box and my job is done – WRONG!

When you put up a box, you become the caregiver to that box and need to visit it every 6-8 days during nesting season from the beginning of April 1 to the end of August.  You should be keeping records for your local bluebird association and you must eliminate any house sparrow nests if you find them.  (Remember the motorcycle gang? Befriending bluebirds is not for the feint of heart.)

I should not disturb the nest – WRONG!

I never even walked near our birdhouse once we put it up because I was afraid I would scare off potential residents.  Kent said he once had to move a nest about 100 feet, and the hen just followed to the new site.

If I touch eggs or baby birds, their parents will abandon them – WRONG!

In fact, if chicks are orphaned, you can actually take the babies and foster them out — one each in neighboring houses.  They’ll get the same care as the original chicks.  For this reason, Kent observed, “We know bluebirds can’t count.”

There is a lot to learn about these vivid, people-friendly creatures, and a lot to love.  Even if you don’t live in the kind of wide-open spaces they need, you can get involved in maintaining and reporting on a bluebird trail in a nearby public area.   Learn more about it through the National Bluebird Society http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/.

If you live in Wisconsin, check out BRAW http://www.braw.org.

Here are a couple websites with info:

www.nabluebirdsociety.org/

www.braw.org

www.wild-bird-watching.com/Blue_Bird_Trail.html

www.stolaf.edu/academics/naturallands/bluebirdtrail/

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