Bluebird and Small Cavity Nester Conservation
Sialis - Bluebirds and other small cavity nesters
 
bluebirds

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Bluebirding Basics

(Also see Bottom Line Advice for New Bluebirders and a 4 page Bluebirding Handout)

Until fairly recently, Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were uncommon in Connecticut, mainly due to loss of habitat open space/snags), and competition for nesting sites from introduced species (starlings and house [English] sparrows). However, bluebirds are coming back.  They are fascinating, beautiful birds.  You can help increase their numbers. The keys are:

Bluebird nest. Photo by Bet ZimmermanxTree swallow nest. Photo from http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/treeswallow.htmChickadee nest. Photo by B ZimmermanTufted titmouse nest. Photo by Bet ZimmermanHouse wren nest.  Photo by B Zimmerman

Learn to recognize nests and eggs (more photos) - also see chart on relative sizes of eggs.

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Bluebird: Neat, cup shaped, woven nest of 100% fine grass or pine needles. Occasionally bits of fur or a few feathers and rootlets. Fairly deep nest cup. Eggs are powder blue, sometimes white. NOTE: Western Bluebirds will routinely add ribbons, cellophane, feathers, thin bark and leaves to their nest. Note: Rare open-cup nests were found in surface-mined lands in KY and on oak limbs in SC.

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House Sparrow: Jumble of odds and ends, including coarse grass with seedheads, cloth, white feathers, twigs and sometimes litter. Tall nest, may have tunnel-like entrance. Eggs are cream, white, gray or greenish, with irregular brown speckles.

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Tree Swallow: Nest of grass lined with feathers. May be messy. Flatter cup than bluebirds. Eggs are pure white.

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Black-capped Chickadee: Downy nest of moss, fur, and soft plant fibers. Female may cover eggs with moss when leaving the box.  White eggs with brown speckles.

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Tufted Titmouse: Downy nest of moss, fur, and soft plant fibers. May have many earwigs living in it. White eggs with rose/mauve speckles.

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House Wren: Messy nest of twigs, occasionally lined with fine fibers or feathers. Males may build unlined eggless "dummy nests" in nearby boxes to reduce competition. Tiny glossy white eggs, sometimes tinted with pink/buff, with lots of fine pinkish brown/reddish brown/brown specks that sometimes form a ring on the larger end of the egg.


DO...


DON'T...

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Build or purchase a nestbox designed specifically for bluebirds. These boxes are made of unpainted, untreated 3/4" - 1" wood or PVC, have an overhanging slanted roof (2-5", with a shallow saw kerf (groove) to keep rain from entering the box), no perch, a round 1.5" diameter hole (or 1.375" x 2.250" oval hole. Mountain Bluebirds need a 1 9/16" hole), ventilation, drainage holes, are deep enough so predators can't reach in and get to the eggs, and have a door that opens for cleaning and monitoring (if rough wood is not used, add kerfs to inside of door to enable fledglings to climb out). Birds may roost in the boxes in cold weather, and the ground may be frozen in February/March when they start house hunting, so put boxes up in late fall or winter. See plans.

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Put up nestboxes in semi-open grassland habitat, such as mowed meadows, large lawns, cemeteries, orchards, roadsides, and areas with scattered trees and short ground cover. Areas with fence lines, some medium size trees, or telephone lines provide perches for hunting and nest-guarding. If no native birds use the box for two years, try a different spot. (Note: Western Bluebirds do not favor large, open meadows.)

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Mount boxes on 8 ft., 3/4" diameter galvanized pipe, with the entrance hole 5 ft. off the ground. If away from prevailing winds, face E/N or NE.

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Keep boxes a minimum of 125-150 yards apart. If nesting bluebirds are harassed by Tree Swallows, or more than 50% of bluebird trail boxes are occupied by swallows, set up a second, "paired" box 5-20 ft. from the first. Boxes that Tree Swallows nest in should have "kerfs" or grooves (saw marks about 3/4" apart) or 1.5-2" wide x 6" long plastic screen (gutter guard) stapled tightly inside below the entrance hole to enable fledglings to exit.

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Install predator guards to keep snakes, raccoons and other predators from raiding nests (e.g., a 2-4 ft. long, 8" diameter stovepipe or PVC pipe sleeve on the pole, mounted (so it wobbles) just under the box), even if you don't have problems the first year of nesting. Losses without predator protection may run 25-33%.

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If squirrels chew the entrance hole to widen it, screw a metal hole guard (available from birding stores) or a 1.5" thick block of hardwood with a 1.5" entrance hole over the damaged hole, or replace the front part of the box.

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Try attaching strands of 10 lb. fishing line to boxes and feeders to scare House Sparrows. Sparrow spookers made of mylar are VERY effective - put them up AFTER the first egg is laid and remove after fledgling.

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Plant native trees, shrubs, and vines that provide fall and winter food for bluebirds. Consider offering mealworms.

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Provide water.

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Monitor boxes at least once a week to check on progress and control House Sparrows, paperwasps, blow flies, etc.

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You can remove eggs that have not hatched 5 days after last egg hatched.

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Bluebirds like a clean box. Remove bluebird nests as soon as the young fledge, or if nesting fails, to encourage another brood. Put nests in the trash to avoid attracting predators. If mice nest in the boxes over the winter, clean them out in February. See instructions.

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Replace or repair any split, rotten, or broken pieces on boxes that could let rain in and chill nestlings. 

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Be patient! See more tips. And be prepared to become possessed by these captivating birds.

bullet DON'T install nestboxes in brushy and heavily wooded areas, too close to trees or shrubbery. This invites House Wren attack.
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DON'T install nestboxes within 200 yards of barnyards where animals are fed, or where House Sparrows are abundant unless you are willing to actively manage House Sparrow populations.

 

DON'T mount boxes on trees or fence lines--they provide easy access for predators. More info...

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DON'T install boxes near where pesticides or herbicides are used. Don't use pesticides inside boxes unless they are approved for caged birds.

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DON'T hesitate to destroy House Sparrow nests and eggsHouse Sparrows are non-native invasive pests, and are not protected by law. You might think they're cute (some bluebirders refer to them as "rats with wings"), but they will attack and kill adult bluebirds (sometimes trapping them in the nestbox), and destroy eggs and young.  House Sparrow nests, eggs, young, and adults may be legally removed or humanely destroyed under U.S. federal law. It is better to have no box at all than to allow House Sparrows to reproduce in one.

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DON'T remove active nests of any native bird, including Tree Swallow, Tufted Titmouse, or chickadee nests. It is illegal to disturb an active nest of any bird except House Sparrows, starlings and pigeons, which are not protected. Empty House Wren nests can be removed.

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DON'T feed corn, bread, milo, or millet in bird feeders, as this attracts House Sparrows.  Stick with black sunflower seed, thistle (nyjer/niger/nyger) and fruit. Or try a Magic Halo.

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DON'T worry that monitoring will make the parents desert the nest. Bluebirds tolerate human presence. Touching the nest will not make the birds leave--your mother just told you that to keep you from harassing them. Most birds don't have a good sense of smell.

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DON'T monitor more often than 2x/week, or in early morning (as eggs are usually laid 1-2 hours after sunrise)/evening/during bad weather.

bullet DON'T touch eggs while monitoring. Some, especially chickadee eggs, are very fragile. Also oil from hands could inhibit hatching.
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DON'T open the boxes once the birds are 12-14 days old. (Their eyes are fully open when they are 8-11 days old. Parents may just dip their heads into the box hole to feed the young at this age). It can cause young to fall or hop out of the nestbox before they are capable of flying, reducing their chances for survival.

bullet DON'T paint boxes a dark color. (Light colors on the EXTERIOR only are acceptable.) If desired to preserve wood, coat exterior only with linseed oil or a product like SUPERDECK (Coastal Gray), and allow to dry thoroughly before box will be used.
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DON'T assume the nest is abandoned.  During egg laying, adults may spend very little time in the box.  On hot days, the female may leave the nest for long periods of time. The only sure way to know the nest is abandoned is if neither parent has visited the nest for four full hours after the young have hatched. If it has been abandoned, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator (e.g., Joan Fuller 974-3265), the Audubon Society or the North American Bluebird Society.

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DON'T get discouraged if bluebirds don't nest in your boxes the first year.


Bluebird Timetable in Connecticut - see photos of nestling development. Also see general bluebird nesting timetable and more information on bluebird biology for Eastern Bluebirds | Mountain Bluebirds | Western Bluebirds. Also see typical first egg dates by State.x

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Scouting: February to Mid-March: Bluebirds start checking out nesting sites. Late arrivals, or previously unpaired birds may nest as late as July or even August, and some pairs have multiple broods. It's never too late to put up a nestbox, as they may be used for a subsequent nesting (see Number of Broods), for roosting, and are also often checked out in the fall by birds that may return the following spring.

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Nest building: 2-6 days.

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Egg laying: 5-7 days. Usually laying one per day (skipping a day in cold weather is possible but uncommon), for a total of 4-7 eggs. Often start egg laying a few days after nest is completed. Egg laying can be delayed (sometimes for a week or two - 3 weeks is not unheard of) in cold weather, for young parents, or in cases where food is scarce. In Connecticut, the first egg is generally laid in April. (Earliest reported in CT: First week of March. Latest reported in August - 3 broods that year.  One brood/year is more common in CT.) Later broods tend to have fewer eggs, and Bluebirds tend to lay more eggs per nest in the north vs. south, but southern birds have a longer nesting season.

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Incubation: 12-14 days. While they may sit on eggs occasionally during the egg laying period, "full-time" regular incubation doesn't start until all eggs are laid. They may wait about a week if weather is still cold. They may start incubating before the clutch is complete in warmer conditions. Hatching failure is highest during warmer conditions.

bullet Hatching: May occur over 24-48 (rarely 72 hours)
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Fledging: 16-21 days, typically 17-18. Occasionally a runt will fledge one or even two days later than the others. When they are first born, they look "a bit like hairy shrimp." Insect availability may speed up or delay fledging. If the box is empty in this time frame, the nest is flattened, and there is some fecal material (white) on the walls, it usually means fledging was successful. Once they leave the nest, bluebirds do not return to it. When the babies are 28 days old, they can fly well. They can feed themselves by Day 30.

bullet Number of Broods: One to four broods per year. Fourth brood attempts may be made in southern climates. The number of broods probably depends on timing, temperatures, food availability, box availability and the experience or age of the parents. A subsequent brood may be started within days or weeks of fledging the previous brood. It may be in the same box or a different box.

If you keep track of dates, you will be able to avoid opening the box after the young are 13 days old, to prevent premature fledging.  At this age, bright blue feathers are evident on males. Also see www.texasbluebirdsociety.org "Eastern Bluebird Nestling Daily Growth Series" or Pam Ford's photos to help determine age. Some studies have shown that 30% of bluebirds return to previous nesting sites the following season. If you would like to join the participants in Connecticut's Bluebird Nest Box Network, contact Geoff Krukar at (860) 675-8130.


Four day old bluebirds.  Photo by Bet Zimmerman.Food
68% of a bluebirds' diet is made up of insects: grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, spiders, and caterpillars. They also like fruit - e.g., flowering dogwood, holly, mulberry, wild grape, Virginia creeper, pokeweed, and Viburnum. (Although they will eat the fruit of multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle, these are invasive species, and should be eradicated.)  Bluebirds love mealworms. They may eat suet (see link for recipes). Bluebirds rarely eat birdseed (they will occasionally take shelled sunflower and peanut chips).


For more information:

bullet Bluebird Breeding Biology: Eastern | Mountain | Western
bullet Bluebird Photos - nests, eggs and young: Eastern | Mountain | Western
bullet Predator and Problem ID (Sialis)
bullet Nestbox Plans (links)
bullet Nestbox Styles - Pros and Cons (Sialis)
bullet Nestboxes by roadsides, Sialis
bullet Nests, eggs and birds: help on recognizing other typical occupants of Eastern Bluebird nestboxes, and relative sizes of eggs (Sialis)
bullet Frequently Asked Questions
bullet Feeding and Raising Mealworms (Sialis)
bullet Great Bluebirding Links and Resources (Sialis)
bullet Starting Your Own Bluebird Trail (Sialis)
bullet How to Monitor Nestboxes
bullet House Sparrow Management (passive and active controls)
bullet Bottom Line Advice for New Bluebirders
bullet Books About Bluebirds and Trails
bullet Top Tips on Attracting Bluebirds to Your Yard
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State of Connecticut DEP, Nonharvested Wildlife Program, bluebird fact sheet ( 860) 675-8130

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Bluebird FAQ - Audubon Society of Omaha

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Bluebirding Forum - (Garden Web) Q&A with other bluebirders

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Bluebird Information and Awareness

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Bluebird Listserv (associated with Cornell and Omaha Audubon Society) - Best of discussions classified by topic

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Bluebird Nest Problems (identifying causes)

bullet Bluebird Nut Cafe (discussion forum)
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Bluebirder.com

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Cavity nesting birds - U.S. Forest Service publication

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Connecticut Audubon Society in Pomfret. (860) 928-4948

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology , Birdhouse Network

bullet Critter Condos - Managing Dead Wood For Wildlife, WI DNR
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Eastern Bluebird distribution - winter and summer

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Feeder plans for Bluebirds

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Flyer with general information about bluebirding - available in PDF format

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Links and Resources for Bluebirders (from the Bluebirding Forum) including where to buy quality nestboxes

bullet Landscaping in an environmentally responsible way to attract bluebirds
bullet Life History
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Masschusetts Bluebird Association - CT doesn't have one.

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Nesting schedule, what records to keep

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North American Bluebird Society - Fact Sheets

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Planting for Wildlife - list of plants preferred by bluebirds and hummingbirds

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Thunder Bay Bluebird Recovery Program

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Stokes Birds at Home


References

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Berger, Kridler and Griggs, The Bluebird Monitor's Guide, 2001.

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State of Connecticut, Department of Environmental Protection, Eastern Bluebird, Wildlife in Connecticut, Informational Series, 1997.

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State of Connecticut, Connecticut Wildlife, Bluebird Bulletin , March/April 2002.

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Stokes, Donald and Lillian, Bluebird Book: The Complete Guide to Attracting Bluebirds, Boston, 1991.

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Zickefoose, Julie, Enjoying Bluebirds More, The Bluebird Landlord's Handbook, Birdwatcher's Digest Press, Marietta, Ohio, 1993.


The bluebird carries the sky on his back.
- Henry David Thoreau

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May all your blues be birds!

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Last updated May 20, 2013. Design by Chimalis.

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