Feeding bluebirds

Everybody would like to attract Bluebirds.  The fact is it is not difficult to attract Bluebirds and the single best way to do that is with a couple of nest boxes placed in good locations as we pointed out in last week’s blog.  We want to help you attract Bluebirds and enjoy the entire experience from courtship to nest building, egg laying to chick development, and finally fledging.

Besides the nest boxes planting native berry producing trees and shrubs, like Dogwood and Beautyberry for example, have a consistent source of water, and offering an appealing food source like live mealworms are things that will help.  Eastern Bluebirds feed primarily on insects and berries’ so feeding them is different than the way we feed other birds.  At The Wood Thrush Shop we have a great deal of experience feeding Bluebirds and would like to pass on our tips and tricks to help you have success and enjoy the activity as much as we do. 

In the spring when Bluebirds begin checking out a nest-box is the best time to begin offering the live mealworms.  Why?  Their need for nest boxes takes precedence during the breeding season and will bring them to your yard more predictably and reliably, and potentially for several months.  Feeding them then becomes a lot easier.    

 Caged type bluebird feeders help discourage larger birds from accessing mealworms.

Caged type bluebird feeders help discourage larger birds from accessing mealworms.

 We stock lots of simple tray and dish options that work well for feeding bluebirds.

We stock lots of simple tray and dish options that work well for feeding bluebirds.

 These small glass dish type feeders come in a veriety of styles such as hanging, garden stake, and pole mount.

These small glass dish type feeders come in a veriety of styles such as hanging, garden stake, and pole mount.

Once you see Bluebirds showing interest in a nest box be prepared to offer mealworms.  The type of feeder to use is really not very important.  My choice of feeder is a small clay dish which is placed on a large rock which is easily seen from the top of the nest-box, just a few feet away.  Platform type feeders tend to work very well, too.

Look for an opportunity to walk out to the feeder and offer a small amount of worms, maybe a dozen.  THIS IS IMPORTANT!  The key is to make sure the Bluebirds are there to see you make the offering. 

After placing the worms in the feeder walk away and watch.  In most cases you will have immediate success.  They fly right down to the dish and gobble them up.  I like to repeat this after they consume the first offering just to reinforce the process.  I repeat this little scene every time the opportunity arises over the course of the next few days or weeks.  Usually 4 or 5 times are enough for the Bluebirds to catch on to what you are doing.  If during that first offering they fly away do not leave the mealworms there.  The longer the worms are there the greater the likelihood that other birds, like Robins, Mockingbirds, or Starlings see them.  If they catch on to this offering feeding the Bluebirds will then become almost impossible, not to mention possibly creating enough conflict the Bluebirds may look elsewhere to nest. 

 Repeated successful feedings will help get you bluebirds on a "feeding schedule".

Repeated successful feedings will help get you bluebirds on a "feeding schedule".

When bluebirds show interest in your nesting box is the best time to offer food.

So, keep the offerings minimal until the Bluebirds really catch on.  Then you can increase the amounts of mealworms being offered as they raise their young.  Soon they will be waiting for you, or even seeking you out in your yard as I’ve experienced in the past.

TIPS For Feeding Bluebirds:

Ø  Offering mealworms when Bluebirds are not present is a sure way to feed a lot of other birds.  Wait until you see them before offering.

Ø  If birds that you do not want are getting the mealworms suspend offering the mealworms for a few days or more and start over using the suggestions we’ve outlined.

Ø  Bluebirds may partake of other foods like dried mealworms, suet, Bluebird nuggets (a type of suet), raisins, blueberries, chopped apple and grape.  Experiment and let us know your results.

Ø  Location is important.  Don’t try to feed them near birdfeeders or a place that gets a lot of bird traffic.  Feeding them close to their chosen nest box is easiest but do make sure you don’t let other birds in on the mealworms treat.  Some birds may become territorial over the food source and create conflict at the Bluebird box. 

Ø  Some people employ the method of making a sound, like whistling, while they offer the worms.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, Bluebirds will key in on the sound and associate that with the treat about to be given them.  I’m convinced that the Bluebirds we fed behind the store one year became familiar with the sound and sight of my truck arriving in the morning.  As soon as I would get out of the truck they would be landing on nearby perches waiting for me to enter the store and bring out worms.

Remember, Bluebirds will not become dependent on the mealworms but will simply take advantage while they are offered.  You can suspend feeding Bluebirds any time and not worry that they will starve. 

Get ready for bluebirds

Have you been watching and listening?  Birds are singing and going through the motions of courtship. The breeding season is fast approaching.  It’s evident Eastern Bluebirds have already begun searching for mates and potential nest-sites.  Several times in the past few weeks I’ve seen multiple Bluebirds land on and look in the nest boxes around my yard. (See video) In the video you will see classic courtship behaviors like wing fluttering. 

Although most Bluebirds won’t begin their first nesting until early to mid-April, their search for nest sites will typically intensify in the last weeks of February and into March.  Some eager Bluebirds may get on nest as early as mid-March.

You may think you don’t have the right situation for Bluebirds because you’ve heard they need the perfect setup to be attracted.  Not true.  Bluebirds adapt very nicely to all kinds of yard situations.  If Bluebirds needed the “perfect setup” as described by the many articles you may read about them they would be extinct by now. Offer a couple of nest boxes in good locations and see what happens.  If you already have nest boxes now is a good time to make sure they are cleaned out and free of old debris left over from last year’s nesting’s.  

Here are a Few Tips on Choosing a Location:

Ø  An open lawn area may be preferable but not absolutely necessary.  Choose the most open location available in your yard even if it means there will be a little more human traffic. 

Ø  Bluebirds are typically more sensitive to a lot of bird traffic, so it’s not recommended nest boxes be placed near bird feeders.  What’s a comfortable distance?  It’s impossible to be exact but we would suggest 50 to 100 feet away, or out of sight of feeding stations.

Ø  You may have heard that nest boxes need to face east.  While this may be helpful to keep wet weather from being a detrimental factor this is not something Bluebirds require.

Ø  A Bluebird box does not need to be on a pole, although the advantage of a pole is it allows you to position the box in the location you determine to be the best.  Bluebird boxes can be mounted to trees, fences, structures like garden sheds, and utility poles.  A height of 4’ or 5’ is sufficient.   Our pole system for Bluebird boxes will put the box at 5’ after installation.

Ø  How many boxes can be offered in a typical yard situation?  So, there is no harm in offering lots of nest boxes (birdhouses) in your yard but do not expect them to all get used at the same time especially if they are close in proximity to one another.  For instance, two nest boxes within 25 feet of one another are not likely to be occupied simultaneously.  Birds are too territorial to accept this situation unless they are colony nesters like Purple Martins and Cliff Swallows.  But feel free to decorate your yard with lots of birdhouses if that’s your thing.  Offering multiple nest-boxes is great and it does lessen the competition for a single box but  do consider the nature of the species you are trying to attract and what kind of setting would be most appealing.

Ø  We are often asked “when is a good time to put up a bluebird box”?  Every day is a good day to put up a bluebird box.  After all, the sooner they see it the better the chances are of attracting them.

And PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE remember to not let your desire to attract Bluebirds cause you to clean out other songbird’s nests like Chickadees, Wrens, the Tufted Titmouse or White-breasted Nuthatch. In no way does cleaning out a Chickadee nest ensure you will get Bluebirds instead.  Chickadees typically nest earlier than Bluebirds and only once. Bluebirds will nest up to 3 times per season and have plenty of time.  Even if you do not get Bluebirds during the first nesting there is still time for two more.  Besides, if a Bluebird wanted the nest-box it would easily out-compete a Chickadee.  Enjoy the fact that you’ve attracted a native songbird to your offering and watch the process.  It’s a lot of fun.

….Next Week How to Feed Bluebirds

Spring Notes

With spring almost here there is so much to anticipate happening with regard to birds.  Many of our year round resident songbirds have begun courtship.  Currently there’s a lot of singing and territorial squabbles going on.  We’ve had some reports of the always eager Carolina Wrens building nests.  If you haven’t seen any Bluebird activity at your nest boxes yet don’t despair, there’s still plenty of time.  Although some Bluebirds will start nesting in March the majority of Bluebirds tend to begin actual nesting closer to mid-April.  Other cavity nesters like Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Nuthatches, and Tufted titmice tend to start a little earlier.  Make sure you’ve done some maintenance on your nestboxes and cleaned out old debris from last year’s nests.  The old nest debris can attract insects, like ants, that can be a major problem for baby birds. 

Much More on Bluebirds Coming in the Weeks to Follow…

Male Bluebird. Photo by Eli.

Photo by Eli.

Migration is not in full swing yet, however, any day now Purple Martins and other members of the Swallow family will be moving into and through TN.  Tree Swallows, Rough-winged Swallows, Barn and Cliff Swallows are among the earlier migrants to return.  Every day birds from Central and South America are moving closer to middle TN.  By the last week of March and first week of April the first hummingbirds of the year will begin arriving or passing though on the way to their summer breeding destination. That’s right! The first Ruby-throated hummingbirds to arrive are just about 5 weeks away. For birdwatchers this is a most exciting time. Warblers, Vireos, Tanagers, Indigo buntings, Orioles, and Flycatchers will soon be pouring into and through middle TN.

Tree Swallow.

White-eyed Vireo. Photo by Eli.

Look for Rose-breasted grosbeaks and Indigo buntings to start arriving at seed feeders around mid-April through mid-May.  Rose-breasted grosbeaks especially like platform feeders but will manage very well on tube type feeders, too.  They really like sunflower and safflower.  Indigo Buntings also like a variety of seeds but seem to prefer feeding on the ground.  Keep the suet feeders going and you will be amazed by the increase in suet consumption well into the spring.  Woodpeckers take great advantage of the suet while they are nesting.  Raising young is high energy work and the suet is an easy high energy food source.  I typically see suet consumption double at my house during the spring and early summer months.

Adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Indigo Bunting. Photo by Eli.

Get your feeders cleaned up and your binoculars ready. Clean feeders are very important in reducing the chances of avian disease like avian conjunctivitis which is very common among the finch population.  A good cleaning with warm soap and water or a mild bleach solution is recommended.  Speaking of finches, have your Goldfinches suddenly disappeared? Or suddenly appeared?  Are you seeing them beginning to change to their spring-summer plumage?  Goldfinch numbers at your feeders can change daily during the early spring as there is a lot of movement among flocks. Don’t be surprised or think you’ve done something wrong if you don’t see finches for a few weeks.  This is normal spring activity for Goldfinches. 

Cleaning and tuning up feeders

feeder cleaning.jpg

Now is a great time to give your feeders a good cleaning and needed maintenance.  If you need to replace a cracked tube, have missing perches, or whatever the issue, bring your feeder to us to see if we can help.  Many of the feeders we carry offer lifetime warranties and many parts are available and on hand.  We are happy to fix feeders whenever possible. 

We cannot stress enough the importance of cleaning your feeders on a regular basis.  As needed, or every couple of months at the very least, is a good guideline.  Dirty feeders can be a very unhealthy environment and diseases that affect wild birds may be shared.  Wet weather is usually the catalyst for moldy conditions and it’s during those times you need to pay very close attention.  Lately it has been very wet. 

No feeder is maintenance free and moisture finds a way in to even the very best quality feeders.  Follow some of these simple guidelines to keep your feeders in good shape.  To clean a feeder you may use warm soapy water and whatever available utensils you have that will work with your particular feeder.  If a feeder has become moldy you may use a mild (10%) bleach and water solution.  We carry long handled brushes to make cleaning a tube feeder easier.  For platform feeders an old spatula is very handy.  Clorox wipes are handy for tube feeder ports and hard to reach spots.  Be sure to rinse and dry thoroughly before refilling.

Keeping the ground below the feeders maintained is also a good idea. A significant build-up of shells and seed can present problems, again, worse when it’s wet.

Feeding birds is fun and offers us a closer look at beautiful songbirds.  Help them even more by providing a clean, safe environment.

If you see a sick bird at your feeders take them down immediately and give them a good cleaning.  Wait a few days before putting them back up.  House finches and Goldfinches are among the most susceptible to avian diseases passed along at feeders.  Here are some of the brushes we carry at the store. 

These large brushes work great for birdbaths and cleaning out large feeder trays.

Use these long brushes to clean out larger tube feeders.

Hummingbird feeder brushes work well on seed feeders too. especially those hard to reach areas.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

We are only a week away from the great backyard bird count. You can contribute to the count by counting birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, February 16-19, 2018, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world, for as long as you wish! For more information on the GBBC and how to sign up CLICK HERE to go to their page.

For more info on local birding events going on through the month of February check out our February is national bird feeding month blog post

Also don't forget about our big national bird feeding month sale going on the whole month of February at The Wood Thrush Shop. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO ON OUR SALE

Happy birding!