With March beginning, the bluebirds should be returning soon.
Bluebirds are possibly America's favorite songbird, and for good reason - These birds are great fun to watch in the garden, catching bugs and posing on fenceposts. Their sky-blue feathers and red breast make Bluebirds one of the easiest to identify songbirds.
You may be wondering, "How can I attract bluebirds and get them to nest successfully in my yard?"
The good news is, Bluebirds are very easy to get to nest successfully as long as a few basic needs can be met. These are:
- access to food
- access to water
- suitable habitat
- a place to nest safely from predators and competitors.
Read on to learn more about bluebirds and how you can support bluebirds in your yard!
What do Bluebirds Eat?
A Bluebird's diet consists mostly of insects and berries, with a balance of around 2/3 insects and 1/3 berries. Their preferred food source is insects, as these provide the necessary proteins to lay eggs and raise young.
Bluebirds will turn to berries in the winter, especially as insects die off or go dormant. Many bluebirds migrate south in the Winter to have better access to food and water.
Since Bluebirds feed mostly on insects and fruit, they don't typically visit birdfeeders. They prefer to forage for insects on the ground, and will sometimes pick them off plants or even out of the air.
If you really want to get bluebirds to visit your feeders, your best bet is to put out mealworms. These are the larvae of a type of beetle, and are widely available in dried form.
If you go the route of providing mealworms, you will need to put up a special feeder - I would recommend the Kettle Moraine Bluebird Feeder. It is a really nice feeder available on Amazon that is made in the USA - It is made from durable cedar and designed specifically for feeding bluebirds.
Selecting Plants that Provide Food for Bluebirds
We don't typically put out mealworm feeders for the bluebirds, since it can get expensive to keep buying mealworms, and long-term sustainability may be in question.
My preferred way to help the bluebirds is to select good native plants that will support their food and shelter needs.
When looking for plants that will provide food for bluebirds, you need to consider more than just berry-producing plants.
The best plants to select would be ones that host a variety of butterfly and moth caterpillars, since these are the main food of bluebirds.
An excellent resource for this is the NWF's plant finder - This is a great tool for finding plants that support insects, which are a vital part of the food web of many birds and animals.
Remember not to spray insecticides on your gardens, as this completely defeats the purpose! If you have a good selection of plants adapted to your area, you will attract birds and predatory pollinators that will keep insect populations under control.
How do I Provide Water for Bluebirds?
In addition to food, Bluebirds also need water. While any water source will work, their preference is for moving shallow water such as streams and springs. A birdbath or a fountain will provide their water needs.
Remember that bluebirds still need water in the winter if they stay around! If all other water sources are frozen, then it becomes vital to provide some source of thawed water.
During the main season, this isn't so much of an issue unless the weather turns dry for an extended period of time.
Bluebirds will usually visit bird baths, especially ones that are placed directly on the ground.
When preparing a bird bath for bluebirds specifically, make sure that the water isn't too deep, and that there is sufficient perching space around the rim of the bird bath.
Bluebirds have an affinity for moving water, so consider putting some kind of birdbath agitator in your birdbath - These solar-powered devices have vibrating pads on them that agitate the water. This makes it more likely for bluebirds to use the birdbath, plus it helps to keep mosquitoes from breeding in your birdbath.
If you are in an area where some bluebirds overwinter, you may need a birdbath heater. As long as the weather stays above 0 degrees or so, these plug-in heaters work very well to keep the water thawwed.
Ideally, Bluebirds prefer moving water. If you have a natural spring or stream in your yard, that is more than sufficient. Thankfully, artificial streams and especially fountains, are very easy to make yourself.
Patio fountains are also readily available, and bluebirds will use them. A really nice one is this one from Amazon - It looks like an old fashioned well pump with several cascading barrels which bluebirds are able to perch on to drink.
The one I linked to also has an integrated planter that looks like a clay pot - Put a fern in it, and bluebirds will love it!
What is a Bluebird's Preferred Habitat?
Bluebirds are birds of open, grassy areas with some trees and shrubs around to perch in.
They really like the area at the edge of woods or a hedgerow along a pasture - They hunt for bugs in the grass, and fly back to the hedgerow trees for safety.
Bluebirds don't like overgrown, brushy areas - In these areas, wrens seem to outcompete bluebirds. They really proliferate in large lawns, golf courses, parks, and anywhere else that has some open area.
They will nest in wooded areas as long as the understory isn't too thick, such as the old remnant forest tracts in agricultural fields.
How to Make Your Yard a Bluebird Habitat
It really doesn't take much effort to make your yard more bluebird-friendly.
At the Nursery, we always see bluebirds flying around. We let one area of pasture go unmowed for a season, and put up nesting boxes.
We have had at least 3 successful pairs every year since we did this, and will put up more boxes around the pasture this year!
At the edge of the garden, plant a clump of 3 redbuds and allegheny serviceberry - These small trees offer perching sites for bluebirds to hunt, and the swath of native grass will provide plenty of insects for the birds to eat.
What are Problems Bluebirds Face?
While Bluebirds are very easy to attract, it is important to remember that they do face some problems.
The main difficulties they face are predators and other birds that will compete for their nesting space.
Common Predators of Bluebirds
The main predators of Bluebird adults are housecats and hawks. Make sure that your yard has plenty of twiggy small trees and shrubs that the bluebirds can duck into to get away from them.
Also make sure that it doesn't get too overgrown around your birdbath and houses. Cats will take advantage of the cover and hide in wait for birds.
Snakes, raccoons, squirrels and chipmunks will sometimes get into the nesting boxes and eat the eggs or young hatchlings - For tips on how to control nest predators, scroll down to the Nesting Box Location section.
Competitors of Bluebirds
The biggest competitor of bluebirds by far are house sparrows, sometimes called English Sparrows.
These birds are much more aggressive than bluebirds, and take over nest boxes earlier than bluebirds. Sparrows are very difficult to keep out once they've taken over a nesting box, and the best solution at that point may be to clean the box out and move it.
House sparrows mainly congregate around houses and barns, so by moving your nesting box at least 100 feet away from the nearest human structure, you're increasing the chances of your bluebirds nesting successfully.
That brings us to our next topic: Nest placement!
Where should I place my Bluebird Nesting Boxes?
While bluebird boxes are very easy to install and can be installed almost anywhere, some care should be taken when choosing a site. Here are some of the factors that you will need to consider:
The Best Location for Bluebird Nesting Boxes
The best location for a Bluebird Nesting Box would ideally be in an open, grassy area with trees not too far away.
A key example of this is pastureland - Here in the East, pastures are usually surrounded by forest, and this is where Bluebirds really proliferate.
Make sure that you don't put the nesting box right at the edge of the woods or in a shrubby area - These places are the preferred habitat of House Wrens, and they will claim a nesting box right away.
They are also fiercely competitive, keeping Bluebirds from being able to nest.
As I mentioned earlier, you will definitely need to keep the nesting box away from buildings, with 100 feet being the minimum.
How Far Apart should Bluebird Nesting Boxes Be?
In order to prevent conflict between pairs of bluebirds, try to keep your nesting boxes at least 150 feet apart. Each box has the potential of raising a brood of young, so try to put as many on your property as you can fit within that distance!
Side Note - If you are looking to purchase a bluebird nesting box, I recommend the round Gilbertson-style ones. My brother got a few of these several years ago (I can't even remember where from), and they have been extremely successful. House sparrows do not like the smaller, deeper box, and the design makes it hard for predators to get in.
These boxes are somewhat hard to find, and not a lot of large stores sell them. The best price I've seen is on Etsy.
If you are handy with tools and like to build birdhouses, here's the original plan - They are very straightforward to make!
Which Direction should my Bluebird Box Face?
Place your bluebird nesting box so that the entrance faces away from the hot sun and away from the prevailing wind. I usually place them facing East, since our strongest winds come from the West and South.
We also get really hot afternoon sun, so I consider that as well when placing the box.
Bluebirds begin coming back up from the south in mid-March, and they select nesting sites right away. Be sure to have your boxes cleaned out and put up by March 15th.
Hopefully I've given you some helpful tips for getting bluebirds to nest - Be sure to click the links in the green bar to share this article!