People passionate about nature

Confessions of a Bluebird Fanatic

One cottage-owner's adventures with the Eastern Bluebird

By Larry Romaniuk

Some friends and family will think you’ve gone bonkers when all you do is babble about bluebirds. Or comment enviously that you sure spend a lot of time watching those bloomin’ birds.  But wait! There’s more to bluebird watching than meets  the eye.

Above: Eastern Bluebird by Christian Artuso

At one time the Eastern  Bluebird was a common sight in the Interlake area of Manitoba where I have my cottage. Because of its brilliant coloration, it was once described as the bird who appears to wear the sun on its breast and the blue sky on its back. But in the 1900’s, the bluebird numbers dwindled, not only in my area but throughout North America. The numbers dwindled to such an extent that few people were able to say that they ever saw this beautiful, sparrow-sized bird. Their decline was likely the result of loss of habitat, competition from other birds, killing winter weather, predators, and possibly pesticides.

Today, thankfully, this gentle bird appears to be making a slow comeback in the Interlake area.

In the past few years, the local resurgence  in bluebirds is due, in part, to the efforts of people erecting so called “bluebird trails” - long lines of specially built nests.  The Manitoba Bluebird Society, with its many members, has helped educate, promote and provide records on bluebirds. Groups in other provinces are equally active in bluebird conservation.

I first set eyes on a pair of eastern bluebirds at my cottage in 1993 where I watched spellbound at the beauty and antics of this gentle bird. From that moment on, I was hooked! Further curiosity and research led me to build a few crude nests the following year. You must be patient though. My wife , Lil, and I waited for 5 years before the birds came back to nest.  In 1998 we were thrilled to witness a successful brood with 4 fledglings. They appeared to favour the surrounding area with its open meadows, trees and nearby river and have returned every year since. Now in the Geysir area, between Riverton and Arborg, we continue to add a few nestboxes  a year over a 10 acre area. In the last few years we, and others in the area, have seen  their numbers increase  steadily. 

Above: Eastern Bluebird by Christian Artuso

The use of constructed houses is necessary in order to prevent competition from other hole nesters. They also provide addition protection from predators and adverse  weather.  Proper placement of nestboxes can encourage bluebird nesting and discourage other competing birds. Eastern bluebirds prefer open rural areas with short grass and rarely nest in wooded surroundings. Suitable habitat should include perch sites such as tree branches and fence lines where the birds may perch in search of food. Ideally nestboxes should be mounted  11/2 to 2 meters above the ground on metal posts. If mounted any higher, it will make it harder to monitor the nests and will encourage house sparrows.  I have found success in separating the nests 100 to 200 meters apart.

Bluebird houses are easy to build since designs are available in many bird books or on the internet, but are also available for sale at commercial outlets. Research has shown that the Peterson style nestbox has produced more fledglings per nest than any other style. Its design has many excellent features from a large slanting roof, oval entrance hole, a small floor area and  thicker, better quality lumber for added insulation. More information can be found on the internet under or the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) at . These websites provide comprehensive and educational information on all aspects of bluebirds and bluebirding.

When the boxes are set up, you search the skies from early April to June for that flash of blue…and finally you see them! What a thrill to see  that first pair coming to inspect your nests. But they don’t stay long. After a day or two, they are gone, maybe to another nestbox or perhaps never to be seen again. Such a disappointment. Nevertheless you must be patient. If you are lucky, they return and reward you with their courtship rituals, their timid feeding habits and finally 3 to 7 light blue eggs.

Once the eggs are laid, the watching and worrying begins. Tree Swallows, although a beautiful bird on its own, often take over most of the nests. And there are many other obstacles for the bluebirds to overcome. Maybe you nail the nestbox to a fence post and don’t put a baffle on, inadvertently providing a meal of bluebird eggs or young for a hungry raccoon or the neighbor’s cat.

Or maybe the problem comes from a wren or a house sparrow which pecks the eggs. Danger lurks everywhere from squirrels, chipmunks, wasps, starlings, ants, mice, skunks, weasels, pesticides, starvation, diseases, parasites, hot spells or cold snaps. And what can make you sicker than seeing a beautiful bluebird survive all these risks only to smash into a window or get hit by a vehicle. The more you care, the more painful it is when something goes wrong.

And so the daily monitoring begins in an attempt to make sure all goes well.  Even when it’s hot and humid, cold and wet, the mosquitoes are after your blood, or when work and responsibilities are piling up, you still need to get out and regularly check the nests during the active nesting season. Will the young survive the first cold, wet night out of the box? You find yourself running outside in your underwear to shoo away a marauding crow who is eyeing up the nest. Your friends wonder why you have bags under your eyes from lack of sleep. And why are you keeping mealworms in your fridge? You jump for joy when the last runt makes it to the safety of the trees.

Above: Eastern Bluebird by Christian Artuso

So you see,  bluebirding is not for everyone. I was once told by my neighbor, Valdine, that she was glad that she did not have the bluebirds in her yard last year. She commented “I’m worn out. Now YOU can have the worrying and sleepless nights”. She was apparently frustrated with all previous failures with bluebirding, having had only a couple of successes. In spite of this,  I couldn’t help but notice that she had cleaned out her old nests once again and set them up for next year. She too had been secretly “smitten”.

When the last bluebird has successfully flown the coop, you will feel exhausted but satisfied. You may even feel the void of a genuine “empty nest” syndrome. The babies you have watched over so carefully are now gone, and you have to wait a whole year for the entire cycle to start anew. Hopefully they will return next year, along with their families.

And so you may ask “Is it all worth it?” Without a doubt it is! In spite of all the mistakes, inevitable tragedies, time and cost, you will know that because of your efforts, there is one more bluebird out there. With the help of bluebird societies and the involvement of bluebird enthusiasts, it is hoped that we can ensure the survival of this beautiful little bird in the future.

Good luck, have fun and happy bluebirding!