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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Anderson

Backyard Dreams, Where Bluebirds Fly

Updated: Mar 17

Eastern Bluebird perched on tree branch
Eastern Bluebird

Who hasn’t heard Judy Garland sing of a place where “Bluebirds fly?” Or Burl Ives' promise of a world “where the lemonade springs, where the Bluebird sings.”


A quick search brought up 14 poems with Bluebird in the title, including Henry David Thoreau’s “The Bluebirds,” ending with:


The bluebird had come from the distant South

To his box in the poplar tree,

And he opened wide his slender

mouth,

On purpose to sing to me.


Male Eastern Bluebird in tree
Male Bluebird seeking shelter in the trees.

Almost Lost Forever


By the early to mid-1900s these birds of lore hit the brink of extinction, their numbers dropping by as much as 90 percent.  The main reasons:


Bluebird range map
Bluebird range map (purple = year-round). Courtesy: Sialia

Pesticides:  Like most birds, Bluebirds rely on insects for most of their food.  Heavy pesticide use in the 1900s killed a lot of the beetles, crickets, spiders, caterpillars, ants and other critters the birds need to survive.


Loss of habitat: As farmland turned into townhouse and industrial developments, Bluebirds lost foraging opportunities. 


Introduced birds:  Competition for natural nesting tree cavities stiffened with the arrival of two introduced birds: House Sparrows and European Starlings.*  


Sparrows, in particular, can be vicious, forcing Bluebirds out of their homes, destroying their eggs and even killing the hatchlings and nesting females.


Red Mulberry fruits; Morus rubra
Trees like Red Mulberry provide food and shelter.

What Saved the Bluebirds?


The Eastern Bluebirds’ return to glory represents one of the greatest success stories in conservation history.  


Educational efforts, the formation of the North American Bluebird Society in 1978, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring all helped raise awareness of dangers of pesticide use and ways to bring back the Bluebirds.


Eastern Bluebird leaving a nest box
Bluebird leaving a nest box.

Another major driver in that recovery was the largely volunteer movement to create Bluebird habitat all over the birds’ natural range (see map above).


According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Breeding Bird Survey, Bluebird populations increased by 3 percent per year through 2010, “When it was becoming increasingly popular for home and landowners to provide artificial nest boxes.


Bluebirds now are considered a species of low concern, with approximately 20 million estimated throughout their range in North and Central America.


Sambucus canadensis fruits
Common Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) provides essential winter food and habitat.

What You Can Do


Anyone with even a small backyard can attract Bluebirds with four key ingredients: food, water, shelter and nesting sites. 


Food: Bluebirds need tree branches or other perches surrounding open grasslands so they can spot and dive for insects.  Bluebirds also pick insects off of tree branches.


Prunus serotina fruits
Plump winter berries on a Black Cherry Tree.

Since caterpillars make up the bulk of the diet the parents feed their clutch, any of the native trees listed as Keystone Species will help bring Bluebirds to your backyard habitat.  


These trees – primarily Oaks, Cherries (pictured, left), Birches, Willows and Maples – feed the largest numbers of caterpillar species and will in turn provide a lovely buffet for your nesting Bluebirds.


Cornus florida red winter fruits
Yummy fruits on a Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).

Since most Bluebirds do not migrate they rely largely on berries from native trees and shrubs for winter feeding.  Favorites include the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis).


They also like Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) and Northern Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica).

Aronia berries
Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia berries healthy for us and the Bluebirds. Photo: Katja Schulz


To keep the Bluebirds especially plump and happy you might add one or more of these: Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), Red Twig Dogwood (Swida sericea), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra).


Others include: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which is a lovely native vine.


American Holly (Ilex opaca) foliage and fruits
American Holly (Ilex opaca) is a favorite of Bluebirds.

Shelter: Dense hedges and evergreen trees like Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and American Holly (Ilex opaca) are essential for offering protection from the wind and cold. They also provide winter berries.

Water: Unless you have a stream or pond, try installing a bird bath.  And if you really want to go all-out, add a heat source and fountain to give it the more realistic effect of flowing water. 


Bluebird bath
Water is essential for any backyard habitat.

Nesting Sites: You can either create your own Bluebird nest box or install a Gilbertson PVC nest box, which Sparrows don’t seem to like.  Nest boxes should face an open area, like a small yard.


Other Ways To Protect Your Nest Boxes


Domestic cat eating bird
Domestic cats are not natural predators and the No. 1 threat to birds.
  • Plug the holes to keep the Sparrows out and open them once the Bluebirds are ready to nest, usually in late-February or early March.

  • Monitor your birdhouses and force out any Sparrows that have taken up residence.  Sparrows are considered invasive and not protected by federal law.

  • Avoid offering sunflower seeds, mealworms, millet, cracked corn, milo and other foods Sparrows and Starlings prefer.

  • Keep your cats indoors and encourage your neighbors to do the same.  Domestic cats are the No. 1 threat to birds in the United States and Canada, killing 2.4 billion every year.

For more information on protecting Bluebirds from House Sparrows and European Starlings, visit NestWatch here.


To help you get started creating your own backyard Bluebird habitat, check out our handy Bluebird Kit here.


Fun Fact ☺: To attract females, the male Eastern Bluebird perches above a potential nesting site, waves his wings and goes in and out of the house.


 

* Where did Starlings and Sparrows come from?


According to All About Birds, a group that wanted the United States to have all the birds ever mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings set 100 European Starlings free in New York’s Central Park in the early 1890s.  There are more than 2 million in North America today.


Similarly, in the mid-1800s, the Cornell Chronicle reports, Europeans in the New World introduced House Sparrows from the Old World as a way to alleviate homesickness and because they (wrongly) believed the Sparrows would control insect pests. 

 

About the author:

Jennifer Anderson is the owner of Tree Talk Natives, a native tree and plant nursery in Rochester, Mass. She loves to talk native plants and can be reached at jennifer@treetalknatives.com.


 

Sources:





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