For the Birds Radio Program: Bluebirds

Original Air Date: May 19, 1995

A patriotic, homey bird is the subject of today’s For the Birds.

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The first bluebirds are back. These sweet-natured thrushes in their patriotic red white and blue are probably the most welcome sight of spring for country people. I saw my first two this year in Port Wing, Wisconsin, the female sitting on a bluebird house checking out the roof as the male inspected its interior, rather like a young married couple trying to decide on their first house. Of course, bluebirds don’t have to worry about mortgages or plumbing or whether the electricity is up to code, but they have plenty of other worries instead–can a raccoon reach in and pull out their babies one by one? Are there large snakes in the area? Will the hot sun cook their babies, or will prevailing winds push too much water in the open door? How likely are starlings to come and fight for property rights? All in all, mortgages seem much simpler.

Bluebirds are making a wonderful comeback, and are much more common now than when I started birding in 1975. Loss of habitat was the first problem they faced, and then they were poisoned by DDT. DDT has been banned in the United States for over 20 years, and with bluebird house projects sprouting up everywhere, bluebirds are increasing and multiplying.

The bluebird is a homey little bird. My mother-in-law’s driveway in Port Wing runs through a pasture, and every visit in spring and summer we look for the bluebirds on the wire. A kestrel or two sometimes sits up there, and Tree Swallows, but the hunched over bluebirds are the most welcome and pleasing of all. Some mornings when I go for a dawn walk they fly over for a visit as I pass. Of course, they aren’t the least bit interested in me–they’re simply looking for bugs on the gravel driveway–but they don’t seem to fear me, either. Their rich, throaty song is as pleasing as their plumage–bluebirds are the contraltos of the thrush family.

All three species of American bluebirds nest in tree cavities or bird boxes. Bluebird societies are continually studying the designs of bluebird houses, and seem to be striving to one day come up with the perfect design for the perfect bluebird house. But I suspect that the bluebirds themselves wouldn’t be any more happy if all their houses were identical than we humans would be if we all had to live in identical houses.

Bluebirds aren’t aggressive enough to ward off competing House Sparrows or starlings, so it’s critical to build houses of the right dimensions to discourage these pests. But it’s impossible to design a house good for bluebirds that isn’t equally attractive to Tree Swallows, and it’s both illegal and rude to throw out swallow nests or eggs. Fortunately, Tree Swallows are as pretty as bluebirds and eat bazillions of mosquitoes, so if you live in a place where both birds want to nest, set out your nest boxes in pairs. Swallows will quickly take one, but because they don’t like to share their flying insects with other swallows when they have a family to raise, they’ll keep other swallows out of the second box. They don’t mind bluebird neighbors at all, since they aren’t competing for the same bugs, so both pairs and their young can live in perfect harmony.

Bluebird marriages aren’t long lasting. They nest two or even three times in a season, but often swap mates the second time around. They don’t hold a grudge–sometimes they go back to mate number one for the third brood. With that kind of family values, they probably couldn’t get elected in today’s political climate, but then again, bluebirds are way too sensible to ever consider running for anything.