A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The return of the cheerful Eastern Bluebird helps makes April special

For outdoor enthusiasts, there’s no month quite like April.

Spring is coming on, days are warming and lengthening, and there’s so much to do outside — fishing, wild turkey hunting, gardening, or just hiking in the woods, enjoying colorful wildflowers.

April is also the month when the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia Sialis) becomes more visible across rural Kentucky, gathering in pairs, or family groups. The return of this cheerful little songbird helps make the month special. Bluebirds are often observed on fence lines or utility wires along country backroads.

The Eastern Bluebird becomes more visible across Kentucky in April, gathering in pairs or family groups. (Photo provided)

Like several other native species of cavity nesters, the bluebird has lost some nest sites to the invasive European Starling and House Sparrow, who take over old woodpecker holes, and cavities in dead trees and wooden fence posts.

Cold winter weather and the resulting food shortages are other factors in periodic bluebird population declines.

In past decades there have been times when bluebird numbers have dropped dramatically, due to die-offs during unseasonably cold winters, most notably in the late 1970s.

But concerned bird lovers have come to the rescue, helping bluebird numbers rebound, time and time again, by building and placing nest boxes in ideal habitat — semi-open farmlands, interstate highway corridors, orchards, large manicured parks, rural subdivisions, utility right-a-ways, and forest clear cuts.

Eastern bluebirds can live for more than five years in the wild, however, most die within their first year of life.

Starvation and freezing threaten young bluebirds, but predation is the greatest mortality factor overall.

Natural predators of eggs and nestlings include chipmunks, flying squirrels, and raccoons. Bluebirds of all ages are eaten by rat snakes, birds of prey, and domestic cats.

Bluebirds often forage for insects from low perches, fluttering down to catch insects on the ground or in mid-air. Their spring and summer diet consists mainly of insects. (Photo by Laurie Lawler)

Range and Distribution

There are three species of bluebirds in North America. Bluebirds are Thrushes, members of family Turdidae.

The range of the Eastern Bluebird extends northward to the Great Lake states into southern Canada, eastward along the Atlantic Coast, south to Florida and Texas, then up the length of the Mississippi River, and westward to the Great Plains.

Some, but not all, bluebirds migrate southward during the winter, but some go as far south as Mexico and Central America.

Kentucky bluebirds that migrate typically move into heavy thickets or densely wooded areas where their preferred winter foods, fruits, and berries, are abundant.

Size, Coloration, and Song

Bluebirds are small, usually six to eight inches tall, with a wingspan of nine to 12 inches, and weigh just over one ounce.

Males have bright-blue breeding plumage, with a rust colored chest and white breast. Females are duller in color.

Calls and songs include a liquid and musical “turee” or “queedle”, and a soft melodious warble.

Food Habits

Bluebirds often forage for insects from low perches, fluttering down to catch insects on the ground or in mid-air.

Their spring and summer diet consists mainly of insects and other invertebrates — grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, beetles, earthworms, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, and snails.

Fruits and berries are critical to their survival when insects are scarce in the winter.

Some preferred winter food sources include dogwood, hawthorn, wild grape, sumac and hackberry seeds, and fruits of bayberries, honeysuckle, Virginia creeper, eastern juniper, and pokeberries.

The availability of a winter food source will often determine whether or not a bird will migrate, and how far they go southward.

Want to help a pair of bluebirds find a place to raise their young? Then build and place a nest box. All it takes is a few boards, some hand tools and a good set of plans. (Photo provided)

Reproduction and Nesting

As a courtship display, males may sing and flutter in front of the female with his wings and tail partly spread.

While perched close together, pairs may preen each other, and males often bring food to their mate.

A bluebird nest is constructed by the female inside a natural cavity or nest box. The nest is a cup of weeds, twigs, and dry grass, lined with finer grass, sometimes with animal hair or feathers.

The clutch is typically four to five eggs, usually pale blue and unmarked.

The female incubates the eggs for about 13 to 16 days. Both parents bring food to the nestlings, and young from a previous brood may also help in feeding.

The young leave the nest at about 18 to 19 days, and pairs raise two, sometimes three broods a year.

Build a Nest Box

Want to help a pair of bluebirds find a place to raise their young? Then build and place a nest box. All it takes is a few boards, some hand tools and a good set of plans. The Audubon Society posted an illustrated DYI article on their website at www.audubon.org.

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1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward.com. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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