Attracting Eastern Bluebirds: A Bird Watcher’s Journal

Male Eastern Bluebird in a Snow Storm
Male Eastern Bluebird in a Snow Storm

We’ve lived in our house for 34 years now and in all that time, I’ve only seen Eastern Bluebirds once or twice and they’ve never stayed long . . . until now. For the past few weeks, I’ve been seeing two males and a female pop up at the feeders periodically. Most days I see them for at least a few minutes. I’m trying to encourage them to stay. 

This post will be a bit different than my usual posts. Instead of sharing everything I’ve learned afterwards, I’m going to offer a real time journal of what happens along the way. Hopefully by the end of it I’ll be able to report that I’ve succeeded in enticing a pair to stay and nest in the yard. I hope you’ll take the journey with me. 

Male Eastern Bluebird on a Power Line
Male Eastern Bluebird on a Power Line

I have to say that I’ve never tried to lure in bluebirds before. There didn’t seem to be much point. Our yard is a one acre wooded suburban lot in central Maryland. It’s not forest, but it does have a lot of mature trees and not a lot of wide open grassy areas. If you’ve ever watched Eastern Bluebirds, you know that they like to sit somewhere maybe five feet or more off the ground out in an open area and fly down to the grass to nab the insects that they like to eat, so you’ll usually see them in large fields or places with a lot of open lawn. That doesn’t describe our property . . . BUT. In January, a very large pine tree fell down in our back yard. Its loss has made the back yard much more open. I think that is why the bluebirds have been willing to spend more time in our yard than they ever have in the past. So maybe there is a silver lining to the loss of the tree.

Eastern Bluebird Pair on Shepherd's Hook During Snow Storm
Eastern Bluebird Pair on Shepherd’s Hook During Snow Storm

Mid-February: Bluebirds Arrive

Two males and one female Bluebird are eating suet from the back suet feeders. I’ve never seen this in our yard before. The feeders are the upside down type that requires a bird to cling to the bottom surface, so the bluebirds can’t spend a long time dangling from them, but they repeatedly nibbled at it and would sit on the shepherd’s hooks they hang from.

A few days later, I again saw two males and one female at the suet feeders (front and back yards this time) and now also eating sunflower hearts from the back Squirrel Buster Plus feeder and drinking water from the heated birdbaths.

And a day or two later, the same three (apparently) are in the yard again, eating suet and sunflower hearts and this time also some dried mealworms in one of the hanging feeders. They are becoming regulars, showing up at least once most days. They don’t stay for more than fifteen or twenty minutes but they usually will go for some suet, sunflower hearts and dried mealworms if there are some there and a sip from the birdbath. Sometimes they will sit under the suet feeders when woodpeckers or other birds are on them so that they can pick up the fallen bits of suet off the ground, a strategy that some of the others birds have used in the past.

Male Eastern Bluebird in a Snow Storm
Male Eastern Bluebird in a Snow Storm

February 20: Bluebirds in the Snow

Here in Maryland we had a decent amount of snow on February 20th. A male and female bluebird spent quite a bit of time on the suet feeder that is about twenty-five feet out from our back door. I sat on the back step and took pictures. They were definitely aware of me but it didn’t seem to bother them that I was sitting there.

February 27: Purchasing a Bluebird Box

I’ve decided to try to entice the bluebirds to stay. Researching Eastern Bluebirds, I learn that they traditionally use nesting cavities found in trees but cannot excavate them themselves so they often use those originally carved out by another species. With more people around and fewer old and holey trees in the right settings, this type of cavity has become less easy for them to find, so people are encouraged to put up bluebird nest boxes if they have the right type of area for them. I’m going to give it a try.

Birds Choice Nest Box
Birds Choice Nest Box

I went to my local birding store (Mother Nature’s in Columbia MD) and asked for advice. They had a variety of nest boxes and were able to point me to several that would work. You want one that has an entrance hole that is 1 ½ ” in diameter. This hole needs to be big enough to allow the bluebirds access but not so big that European Starlings or other large birds can get into it. The box I picked has copper around the access hole so that it can’t be enlarged by another bird or other predator.

Birds Choice Nest Box
Birds Choice Nest Box

The nest box I chose is a “wooden nest-roosting box” from Birds Choice. Quite a few of the feeders in my yard are from Birds Choice (although they are made of recycled materials rather than wood.) This box is made of red cedar which should last quite a long time. The entrance hole is at the top of the front panel, although in the winter, you can optionally unscrew the box and flip the front panel around to put the entrance hole at the bottom so that it can be used for roosting. There are also two dowels included that can be used in this roosting position, although they are not to be used when it is set up to be a nest box. It has an “overhang roof, vents and drainage holes to keep the nest dry and cool.”

Inside Birds Choice Nest Box
Inside Birds Choice Nest Box

There is a little thin metal piece on the bottom right front that you can turn to allow you to lift open the front panel to check on things in the box or so you can clean out the box after nesting is completed. Attached on the inside of the front panel is a bit of metal screen so that the little birds can more easily climb out when they are ready.

Bluebird Nest Box
Bluebird Nest Box

March 2: Where to Put the Bluebird Box?

I again did some research to decide where to put up the box. Most bluebird information sites online will tell you to put the box so that it doesn’t face into prevailing winds and to put it in an open area that is not among trees, but close enough to some type of perch that nestlings will have a place to land when they eventually fly out.

I was also interested in how far a box would need to be away from bird feeders. I have a lot of feeders in my yard and assumed that it shouldn’t be right near a feeder, but needed to know distance. According to the Michigan Bluebird Society, nest boxes should be at least fifty feet from feeders and the house. So I found a spot in the back yard near our back neighbor’s chain link fence that is fifty feet from the closet feeder and probably twice that far to the house. We oriented the box facing roughly southeast. Our neighbor’s back yard has some large trees but is mostly open grass, so between our yard and their yard, I’m hoping the siting will make them happy. 

Attaching Pole to Back of Nest Box
Attaching Pole to Back of Nest Box

The box was mounted on a metal nest box pole that I also bought at the store. It is an Erva “Wolf Point Forge” bluebird house pole. Erva is the company that makes the baffles I like so much. The bird feeder poles in my yard are also made by this company. They are sturdy and have held up well for the several years that I’ve been using them.

There were two holes in the pole for mounting the bluebird box using screws but the spacing was a little off for this particular box’s holes, so Jim drilled a new extra hole in the back of the box to accommodate it. The screws that came with the box were long (probably designed to work with screwing it to a thick fence post, so Jim used some other shorter screws he had to mount the box to the pole. 

Here are two sites that had information on placing a bluebird box that I found helpful:

Michigan Bluebird Society

Nestwatch

March 3: Bluebirds Find the Box!

I saw one male and one female bluebird at the back yard feeders off and on over several hours but no bird activity around the nest box. Then suddenly the pair flew over to the nest box and peeked into the entry hole a few times. Yes! They didn’t hang around on the box long but they seem interested.

Our yard still has a lot of old trees that woodpeckers have put holes in so it is totally possible that they already have or will choose one of those when they are ready to nest, so this box may wind up being redundant . . . or maybe they will choose it and nest in it. We’ll see.

Male and Female Eastern Bluebirds Eating Dried Mealworms
Male and Female Eastern Bluebirds Eating Dried Mealworms

March 5: Bluebirds Eating Dried Mealworms

I saw one male and one female bluebird at the feeders early this morning. After eating, the male flew over to the nest box, peeked inside and then sat on the box for a few minutes before flying off.

Today is a Feederwatch day for me, so I spent a good bit of time watching the birds in the back yard. I started from the dining room window but then moved to the (very unseasonably cold!) back step from where I hoped to get some bluebird pictures.

Dried Mealworms

I’ve been offering dried mealworms to the birds for quite a while now, but mostly have put just a few in the hanging platform feeders and toss a handful into the edge of the nearest brush pile for the Carolina Wrens. (Blue Jays and European Starlings also seem to enjoy them.)

European Starling on a Feeder
European Starlings are Fans of Dried Mealworms

For the past few days, I’ve been putting out extra dried mealworms for the bluebirds in the hanging platform feeders but the European Starlings cleaned them out before the bluebirds had a chance at them this morning. So after a little while, I went out and put some more in those feeders. The bluebirds must have seen me do it because they immediately came back to check it out but couldn’t get close because of the European Starling and Blue Jay activity.

Female Eastern Bluebird on the Old Metal Hopper Feeder
Female Eastern Bluebird on the Old Metal Hopper Feeder

So I went out again. This time I put more mealworms in the hanging feeders but also some in the pole-mounted platform feeder further out in the yard and on the metal platform of the old hopper style feeder right next to it. The bluebirds quickly reappeared and again were unable to get to the hanging tray feeders. They then moved to the two pole-mounted feeders where I had never put mealworms before and happily ate mealworms while the more dominant birds ate mealworms at the other feeders.

Male Eastern Bluebird Eating Mealworms in Ground Feeder
Male Eastern Bluebird Eating Mealworms in Ground Feeder

I can never leave things alone though. Still fiddling with things, I later also tried putting some in a ground platform feeder near the hanging feeders. When the male bluebird couldn’t get past the starling in that feeder, he dropped down to eat some of the dried mealworms from this feeder.  (Late in the day, a squirrel got into this ground feeder, apparently eating the mealworms. I didn’t know squirrels would eat dried worms!)

Male and Female Eastern Bluebirds on Hanging Platform Feeder
Male and Female Eastern Bluebirds on Hanging Platform Feeder

It is now mid-afternoon and the bluebird pair have been around all day. A second male also popped up in early afternoon briefly, grabbing some sunflower and then moving on. While not always at the feeders, the pair seem to be either at the feeders or perched up high in various trees along the fence line. They’ve gotten sunflower hearts a few times but the dried mealworms seem to be the real draw for them. They’ve come back for them repeatedly. I haven’t seen any more activity at the nest box but they definitely are liking the food offerings so they have been sticking around. (The Carolina Wrens seem quite pleased with the extra dried mealworms as well!)

Female Eastern Bluebird
Female Eastern Bluebird

March 6: More Bluebirds Arrive

This morning I put out the last little bit of the dried mealworms, so picked up another bag while I was out running errands. Within five minutes of putting them in the feeders once I got home, five bluebirds popped up to partake of the feast! Today there were three females and two males.

Two Female Eastern Bluebirds
Two Female Eastern Bluebirds

Today is another unusually cold day for this time of year, with temperatures in the twenties, so the local birds seem especially hungry. The yard is hopping with twenty-three species and a couple hundred birds, so the bluebirds had some competition for the mealworms. As well as the continually annoying European Starlings who seem to want to eat ALL of everything, there were also two Northern Mockingbirds munching on mealworms.

Although we have mockingbirds in the neighborhood, they don’t usually hang out in our yard very often, usually only coming for a sip of water once in a while. I rarely see one, let alone two, so it was cool having them hang around for hours.

European Starling and Northern Mockingbird Facing Off Over Dried Mealworms
European Starling and Northern Mockingbird Facing Off Over Dried Mealworms

March 14: Starlings Problems Continue

The bluebirds continue to be around the yard. They still haven’t claimed the nest box and maybe they never will, but either way, I am really enjoying getting to watch them up close. I did add a baffle on the bluebird box pole today to keep out predators just in case.

For the past few days I’ve been seeing two males and two females occasionally during the day. They pop in to see if there are any dried mealworms in the feeder and sometimes grab a sunflower heart or a drink of water.

The European Starlings continue to be a problem with the dried mealworms though. They love them obsessively and once they find them in a feeder they are tenacious about sticking around to fill up their bellies with them until they are gone. If a bluebird is eating them first, they force her out. If I’m outside, I’ll chase the starling away and the bluebird will usually come right back until the starling gets obnoxious again, but otherwise, the bluebirds are out of luck.

Female Eastern Bluebird Eating Dried Mealworms
Female Eastern Bluebird Eating Dried Mealworms

Today I bought a new little weight-activated feeder that I’m trying dried mealworms in, hoping to block out the starlings or at least slow them down.

March 25: Experimenting With The Feeder

I’m still seeing two or three of the bluebirds every day. They aren’t around all day and I think they are probably nesting elsewhere but it is a joy to have them visit a few times a day.

The feeder I bought to offer dried mealworms is doing pretty well. It doesn’t block the starlings but it does slow them down. I’ve been experimenting with a few tweaks to the feeder to make the ports smaller and deeper to see if I can block them completely.

Switching to a Mealworm Feeder

Several bluebirds are still to be found in the yard (usually at least two males and a female.) I spent a couple weeks trying to tweak the ports on a weight activated Squirrel Buster Standard feeder to keep the starlings out but, while I could slow them down, I could never exclude them from that feeder and I started seeing five or more spending way too much time bickering among themselves over the feeder.

So I gave in and purchased an Erva Mealworm feeder that I like very much, as do the bluebirds and the Carolina Wrens. They can now eat mealworms in relative peace and the starlings can’t get in. (Every now and then a starling will try to hang on the feeder but they can’t nab more than a stray spilled mealworm or two so they mostly leave it alone now.)

The bluebirds come by for mealworms, washed down by a sip or two from the birdbath and maybe a few sunflower hearts a couple of times a day now. They never did claim the nesting box, but I’m still greatly enjoying having them in the yard.

Nancie

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