519 East Sheridan Street, PO Box 609 • Eagle River, Wisconsin 54521 • (715) 479-6456
If you are an avid TFT blog follower, you may remember back to 2021 when we first started posting blogs on our website. The first blog published was from me, and it was about putting nest boxes up in your back yard. That year, my husband and I put up nest boxes to try and attract bluebirds to our yard. Instead, we got to enjoy 2 families of Chickadees, who are also cavity nesters (nest in holes made by woodpeckers or other sources). Actually, chickadees have utilized those next boxes over the last couple of years, so imagine my surprise THIS year when we heard a pair of bluebirds while working in the yard and then observed them investigating the nest box. Sure enough, over the next couple of weeks, we were catching more and more views of either the dusky blue of the female or the brilliant blue of the male flitting around our yard.
Make bluebird on my nest box Female bluebird in open pine cover above nest box (not pictured)
So, how do you attract bluebirds to your yard? Well, to put it simply: we got lucky. Actually, we had the right habitat, and…we got lucky. For birds especially, just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. However, there are a couple of things that can be done to increase your chances of getting lucky, especially when it comes to attracting bluebirds:
Bluebirds love insects, which love native plants, so be sure to plant native! In addition to native flowering plants, think about native fruiting trees and shrubs, as the birds will supplement their diet with berries. We have a serviceberry shrub as well as some transplanted blueberries near our nest box location. Even if the bluebirds don’t fancy the berries, they’ll provide food for other birds and animals.
Here, you can see "mama" bluebird with an insect, ready to feed the young.
Our bluebirds seemed to be experienced parents- they could almost always be
spotted visiting the nest with a proteinaceous "goodie" for the chicks!
Let’s say that you have been successful in attracting bluebirds to your yard. Now, what do you look for in a nest box to see if they’ve started a family? (Insert photo of bluebird nest). One of the things you can look for in a bluebird nest is the homogenous use of materials out of vegetation (opposed to Chickadees, which make their nests out of a combination of moss, other feathers, fur, and vegetation).
Note how the bluebird nest is nice, tight (right), and made out of almost entirely the same material. Chickdee nests (above) include twigs, pine straw, feathers, moss, and even fur! Photo Credit: Buckeye Yard and Garden Online)
Another thing to look for is 4-6 blue eggs (which can be brilliant turquoise or very light/almost white) in the nest.Other common cavity nesters in our area include tree swallows (who produce white eggs) and chickadees (who produce speckled eggs). One other species to watch out for is the House Sparrow, which is an invasive species- they will kick native species out of nest boxes (and even attack them for access to the resource). If you find a House Sparrow nest, it is recommended that you remove it to provide better opportunity for native species to nest. If you're wondering what type of nest you might have in your box, this is a great resource for what common nests look like: https://bygl.osu.edu/node/465
What happens if you find the nest of a native species like chickadees or tree swallows but you really wanted bluebirds instead? Can you remove that nest? The answer is no- it is actually illegal to remove or relocated any active native bird nest. Instead, enjoy the opportunity to watch and learn about a new species’ breeding habits- you may just find yourself with a new favorite bird!
Once you’ve noticed any nesting activity of native birds, it is recommended that you do weekly nest checks to monitor nest progress. If you can, do your nest checks around mid-day when temperatures are warmest and its most likely that the male and female are out foraging and not on the nest. Limit your visits to only once per week to minimize any disturbance you may cause. When you perform your nest checks, be sure to knock gently on the side of the box in case there is an adult sitting on the nest: this will encourage it to fly out so you can check on the nest. You should also open the box from the side so that you are out of the way in case a bird flies out at you when you open the door! Nest checks are a really fun learning experience that you can involve the whole family with: it’s very exciting to see the nest fill with eggs, then baby birds, and then see the babies turn into fledglings who eventually disappear once they leave the nest! To find out more about bluebird nest boxes, bird ID, performing nest checks, and how to contribute citizen science data, check out the fact sheet page of the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) website: https://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/fact-sheets-plans/
Left: Our nest started with 5 turquoise blue eggs; 2nd from left: After about 2 weeks, I was surprised (I don't know why!) to find the eggs had turned into little balls of fluff!; 2nd from right: Chicks grow fast- one week later, you could see coarser flight feathers growing in to replace the soft down. There were still 5 chicks in the nest!; far right: Only 2 fledgling bluebirds are left, and almost ready to leave the nest!
Nest checks will also help you know when breeding is over and young have fledged or left the nest. Once this happens, the nest is no longer considered active, and you can clear out the nesting material. You should remove all the material from the box, place it in a bag, and throw it in the trash instead of tossing it on the ground nearby, which could attract predators. Cleaning out an inactive nest can also encourage the bluebirds to nest again as they sometimes will nest more than once in a season, particularly if they’ve been successful.
As far as “my” bluebird family goes, I didn’t observe any deceased young either in the box or nearby, and was able to see a few “near-fledgling” birds on my last check, so I’m assuming the nest was successful (success meaning that all chicks grew up enough to leave the nest). I did clean out our nest box, but haven’t seen any new nesting activity yet, so I’m thinking the bluebirds have moved on, though my husband has seen them flying around our yard still. It’s a little bittersweet having to say goodbye to the experience of seeing the bluebirds every day, but I’ll always remember this summer and how lucky we were to host their nest!
By Kim Feller, TFT Environmental Education Manager
Trees For Tomorrow’s campus, located in Eagle River, Wisconsin, includes National Forest property under permit from the USDA Forest Service. Private property owned by Trees For Tomorrow (TFT), the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and Tara Lila LLC are also utilized for education and outreach purposes.
Trees For Tomorrow is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
519 East Sheridan Street, PO Box 609
Eagle River Wisconsin 54521
© 2022 treesfortomorrow.com All rights reserved.
Have you signed up for our FREE newsletter?