nest box

Basics of monitoring Bluebird and other birds nest boxes

Female & male bluebird building nest.

Female & male bluebird building nest.

Female Eastern Bluebird.

The Wood Thrush Shop encourages people to be a little more involved during the period of time a bluebird, chickadee, or some other native bird, is raising their young in a provided nest box. Certainly, these birds are capable of doing all the important work themselves, but by monitoring you will be treated to a very interesting and amazing process. You may even be able to help them should a problem arise, like an ant infestation.
What is monitoring? Monitoring a nest box may include regular observation from nearby, and periodically opening the box, just enough to take a peek to see what phase of the process the nesting birds are in. Monitoring for me means doing a little of both.

Early Monitoring

· Look for signs of interest from birds. Regular daily appearances? Are they bringing nest material to the box, going in, or just perching on it for periods of time?
· Do you see competition for the nest box among different birds? You may see some territorial bouts, or some courtship behavior.
· Just observe a little each day.

Let’s jump ahead and say a pair of bluebirds has indeed chosen your nest box. Congratulations! Now how do you monitor?

· You’ve seen considerable activity by a pair of bluebirds at the nest box. When the Bluebirds are not present open the box and take a good look. What kind of nest material is being used? Bluebirds will most often use pine straw or fine dry grass. A nest may take hours or longer than a week to complete.
· Now you will be looking for that first egg. Bluebirds will typically lay between 3-6 eggs. When the nest appears to be complete it is recommended you begin looking in the nest box in the afternoons or evenings. Why? Because Bluebirds and other songbirds tend to lay eggs during early morning hours. You wouldn’t want to disrupt egg laying. Not that a bluebird would abandon the nest site because of one disruption but repeatedly could be cause. They will lay one egg per day until complete.
· Only after the female has laid the last egg will she begin incubating. Let’s say on the 4th day of monitoring the box you see a fourth egg. I would recommend you do not look on the 5th day in case 4 is where she stopped and is already incubating. Now is the time that I usually refrain from looking in the box unless I have witnessed her leaving the box temporarily to get some food and to stretch. Take note of how many eggs there are and their color. Bluebirds usually lay blue eggs, but sometimes they are white. I continue to observe from a distance, or a walk by close enough to be able to see something that might be of concern.

Bluebirds usually lay four to six eggs. They can range anywhere from off white to light blue to this bright turquoise.

Bluebird nests mainly consist of dried grasses. Dried pine needles are seen often too.

When you are certain the last egg was laid on a particular day, or the next, mark on your calendar, or smart phone, “14 days until hatching”. The female will incubate between 12 and 14 days at which point the babies will begin to hatch. Again, afternoons will be a better time to open the box to monitor. With cool nights and mornings the female will still be sitting with the chicks keeping them warm.
The Fledgling Period
For the next 15 to 18 days the baby bluebirds will be going through tremendous change. Again mark on your calendar the approximate day they will fledge from the box. Just 15-18 days after hatching! Daily brief looks in the box is fine. You may choose to look every two or three days.

Just hatched Bluebirds.

Starting to grow feathers. 5-7 days in.

Starting to grow feathers. 5-7 days in.

Almost ready to fledge. 14-16 days in.

Almost ready to fledge. 14-16 days in.

· You will see naked baby birds with eyes close during the first days. Near the end of the first week they will increase in size and begin developing their first feathers.
· By the 9th or tenth day they will be feathered but the feathers continue developing. By this time the babies will have more than three quarters of their final body weight. You may be able to determine the sex of the babies based on color of wing feathers. Those of the male will be bright blue, while females a pale gray-blue.
· At around the 12th or 13th day the babies are quite active in the nest and you may see signs of heads poking out of the entrance hole getting a look at the world. It is at this time we recommend not opening the box to look at them.They may be developed enough to leave the box if frightened.
· Keep observing from nearby and look for increased visits from the adults feeding young.
· In another couple of days babies will be ready to leave the box. Usually it takes a couple of hours for all the babies to finally leave where they will remain in a loose group, staying hidden in trees while the adults continue to tend to their feeding needs.

Congratulations, you have successfully monitored your Bluebird box. Now pull out the used nest material and be prepared for the next pair of birds to come along to begin nesting.

Spring Migration

Spring migration is in full swing which means there will be a lot of great birds to see if you spend a little time looking in any of our wonderful parks, on area greenways, and even in your own backyard. Get your binoculars out and your ears ready because the neo-tropical migrants will be passing through middle Tennessee on the way to their summer breeding areas.  Warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, swallows, hummingbirds, and many other species are there for the viewing if you invest some time.  Early in the morning, between 6 am and 10 am are typically best because many of these species travel at night then settle down in the mornings to feed and rest.  For daily sightings reports you may want to subscribe to TN, or visit Tennessee Birding’s Facebook page.  There are links to these sights on our website.

We are only days or a week or so away from the first Ruby-throated hummingbirds to arrive, or pass through the area. Don’t get too eager with putting out several hummingbird feeders, though.  While you may see one or two early hummingbirds they are not usually very interested in the feeders.  One feeder with a small amount of nectar is sufficient.  For up to date information of migrating hummingbirds you may visit Also a great site for hummingbird information is

At your seed feeders, around mid-April, expect to see the always popular Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo buntings.  Most years the Grosbeaks can be seen for about a month before they move on to their breeding grounds, usually well north of us.  Of course American goldfinches are here in abundance year round but the males are beginning to put on their bright yellow spring plumage. Your feeders may have gotten a little slow of late as many of our local resident birds are spending much of their time courting and finding nest-sites. So now is a great time to give your feeders a little cleaning. Soon, though, feeders will explode with activity. As the breeding season progresses, many birds will take great advantage of feeders for a quick and easy food source.  It is during this time birds expend a tremendous amount of energy so the feeders become very important to them.  In my yard I will see suet consumption double during the spring months.

Noting the size and shape of the bird, primary colors, stripes, streaks, spots, and anything particularly unique is key to identification.

So, get out there and see some birds you haven’t seen before.

A Few Bird Watching ID tips:

Ø  Binoculars are essential.  You cannot see real detail on a bird without the magnification of a binocular. 

Ø  Initially, spend less time looking in your field guide and more time looking at the bird.  Committing to memory, or jotting down details should be first priority.  Noting the size and shape of the bird, primary colors, stripes, streaks, spots, and anything particularly unique is key; beak shape, wing shape, and behaviors too.  The type of habitat the bird is seen in is often overlooked by novices.  The type of habitat can sometimes confirm or deny the type of bird being seen.

Ø  After that is when the field guide comes in handy. Instead of going through page by page, narrow down what family the bird is likely in based on the information from initial observation.

So, get out there and see some birds you haven’t seen before.  It’s fun, interesting, and it gets you moving outdoors.  If you’re stumped by a bird you’ve seen come in and we’ll be glad to help you figure it out.  

Get Ready For Bluebirds

Have you been listening?  Birds are beginning to sing.  They know spring is fast approaching.  It’s apparent Eastern Bluebirds have already begun searching for potential nest-sites.  Several times in the past few weeks I’ve seen two and three Bluebirds land on and look in some of the nest boxes around my yard.  Their biological clocks are telling them the breeding season is almost here.  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.

So, get a jump on your neighbors and offer a couple of nest boxes in good locations.  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 would be 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.

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.  The advantage of a pole, however, 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 just fine.   

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.

And PLEASE remember to not let your desire to attract Bluebirds cause you to clean out Chickadee, Wren, and Tufted Titmouse nests.  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.

….Next Week How to Feed Bluebirds

Screech Owl Nesting

Eastern Screech Owl grey morph

Eastern Screech Owl grey morph

Eastern Screech Owl red morph

Eastern Screech Owl red morph

Quite often our blog subjects come from recent conversations had with customers in the store.  In recent weeks there have been several mentions of Screech Owl sightings.  So the diminutive Screech Owl will be the subject this week. 

The Eastern Screech-Owl is a small owl, about 8.5" in length (height), with feathered ear-tufts.  Its wingspan is about 20” and weighs in at only about 6 oz.  The eyes are yellow, and the bill is greenish. Male and female plumage is similar.  As is the case with most birds of prey the female is larger, but the male's voice is lower-pitched.

Its song is a distinctive trill and descending whinny that does not sound like the typical hooting of its bigger relatives, the Barred and Great Horned owls.  To hear the call you can go to the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website, or to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website

The Screech owl has two color-morphs, reddish-brown and gray. In Tennessee the red morph outnumbers the gray by almost two to one. No other North American owl has such distinctive plumage differences. It is found in urban as well as rural areas and readily nests in nest boxes. We don’t sell a lot of Screech owl boxes per year but several customers have had success attracting them.  Like most owls, it is more often heard than seen.  This small owl will feed on insects, earthworms, rodents, and even crayfish and songbirds.

The nesting phase of Screech owls begins in March with peak egg laying late March to early April.  Clutch sizes are usually 3 to 4 eggs but may be as many 6. Nests are usually in cavities that are either natural, excavated by a woodpecker, or human-made nest boxes, including Wood Duck boxes. They add no nesting material to the nest cavity. The female does most of the incubating which lasts about 26 days.  It then takes around 30 days, give or take a few, for the fledglings to leave the nest and then remain dependent on the parents for up to 3 months.

Screech Owl nesting box availible at the shop.

There is still plenty of time to put up a Screech owl box and attract them this spring.  We have boxes in the store for $69 and through January 27 they will be 20% off.  We do not keep a lot of these boxes in stock so if you come in during the sale-period to purchase one and we have run out we will order one for you and honor the sale price. 

Nest boxes should be placed at least 10 feet up on a tree or 4x4 post, on the edge of woods, fields or wetlands. Mount on a post with a predator guard to discourage squirrel activity.

If you are a do-it-yourself person and need a winter project try building a Screech owl box.  Follow this link and find instructions to build your own, as well as many other plans for wildlife structures.

And here’s an interesting link to follow to see where you might be able to better your chances of locating and seeing a Screech owl. Click here for E-Birds Screech Owl list.