Dear Bird Folks,
For the first time in my life we have bluebirds coming to the feeders in our yard and I’d like to get them to stay. Any suggestions?
– Martha, Willington, CT
I’m confused, Martha,
When you called today you seemed to know me, but over the phone I couldn’t recall who you were. You then proceeded to tell me your name and described yourself, as well as your husband. You said, “My husband is tall, with a beard, and I am short…with no beard.” I was slowly starting to picture you, but then you added the part about not having a beard. Now I’m confused. All of the Marthas I know have beards. Hmm.
The recent bluebird obsession has been tough on me. As an entrepreneur, I’m torn between giving folks practical advice and selling them everything that has “bluebird” written on it. People are frequently disappointed when I talk them out of products they really want to buy, but likely won’t help. And believe me, if I knew of an item that would definitely attract bluebirds, I’d sell it to you (and myself). Over the years I’ve tried all of the items that people think will magically bring bluebirds and have nothing but disappointment to show for it. (I’m thinking about starting a support group.)
Most of my customers who are lucky enough to have bluebirds fall into two categories. Some get bluebirds in the winter, while others only have them in the summer. (Only a few folks seem to have them year-round.) Since the weather is starting to improve (hopefully), let’s talk about the summer birds first. Bluebirds are lazy hunters. They don’t run up and down our lawns robin-style, looking for earthworms. They also don’t feed like towhees, energetically scratching the ground for bugs. Instead, bluebirds sit on posts or tree branches and patiently wait for food to come to them. Using their amazing eyesight, bluebirds scan the ground below for unsuspecting crickets, grasshoppers or beetles. This feeding style requires open, grassy fields. As a result, bluebirds avoid heavily wooded areas…except in the winter.
Once the cold weather arrives, and the bugs become less available, the bluebirds abandon their summer homes, form small flocks and set out in search of fruit and berries. They will also come to our backyards (not mine) and eat from suet feeders (usually the scraps that have fallen on the ground) and readily drink from birdbaths (to help flush out the fermented berries). When people see a bluebird in their yard they usually come running to me with the big news. They tell me partly because they are excited, but mostly to rub it in my face (at least that’s how I see it). They also want to “keep” the bluebirds, so they eagerly ask for bluebird-keeping products. That’s a problem, because like a doctor treating a patient with a bad back, I’m not convinced my recommendations are going to do them any good. Winter bluebirds tend to come and go with no real rhyme nor reason…just like back trouble. And even if the bluebirds do stay all winter, they will likely take off in the spring, if the yard doesn’t also provide the nesting habitat they require.
Now that I have that part out of the way, I do have a few suggestions that may give you a fighting chance of attracting a bluebird or two. In the winter, offer suet, sunflower seeds (without the hulls) and water. Not only will these items be appealing to bluebirds, but they will also attract lots of other birds to your yard. So, even if you never get a bluebird, you most certainly will get plenty of other birds that may (or may not) take your mind off the lack of bluebirds.
The situation changes in the spring. Now the birds are looking for a place to nest. If you think your yard offers suitable habitat (more clear than wooded), it might be worth a try to put out a bluebird house. The house should be placed in the open, about head-high and, if possible, on a post. There has been much discussion as to which direction the opening on a birdhouse should face. Don’t sweat that detail. I say face the opening towards your own house. This will allow you to watch the nesting activity from your favorite birding window. FYI: Other birds will also try to use your “bluebird” house. If this happens, the best solution is to put out additional houses in hopes of accommodating everyone. (Gee, I wonder where you can buy more.)
I know I’ve just spent the last few paragraphs telling you not to buy anything special for bluebirds (except a nest box or two), but that all changes if you are lucky enough to have a family in one of your birdhouses. Now I suggest you put out a feeder filled with live mealworms. It’s fun (or so I’m told) to watch the parents feed the worms to their babies. Not only is it thrilling to watch the bluebird family eat from your feeder, but keeping a container of live mealworms in the kitchen is a good way to freak out your houseguests.
Congrats on getting bluebirds, Martha. Whether they stay or not mostly depends upon your habitat and not so much what you offer them. But since it’s spring, it wouldn’t hurt to put out a birdhouse or two. Just keep in mind, other birds may use your boxes. If that happens, you should just enjoy them. Even though you want bluebirds, you are not allowed to “drag” the other birds out of the box…unless you work for United Airlines.