nesting season

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 previous blogs. (Click here for tips on bluebird box placement.) 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, having 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 very 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. We really don’t think presenting mealworms before Bluebirds are seen is a good strategy. In other words it is not likely to attract them. All you are doing is presenting this very desirable food source to a lot of other birds.

The best time to begin offering live mealworms is when Bluebirds begin consistently checking out a nest-box. 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 after they have found a nest-box.

Seeing Bluebirds perched on top of the box and carrying nest material is a great time to offer mealworms.

Seeing Bluebirds perched on top of the box and carrying nest material is a great time to offer mealworms.

Bluebirds will often cling to the front of the box and look in when interested in a nesting sight.

Bluebirds will often cling to the front of the box and look in when interested in a nesting sight.

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 is 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 these birds 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.

Both Mockingbirds and Robins share the same food preferences as Bluebirds and being bigger birds will vigorously defend a food source like mealworms. If you slip up and allow larger more aggressive birds to compete for the worms we suggest a reset. Stop putting out worms for a week or two and begin the process again. Better to be patient than to create an adverse situation.

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 anticipating the offering, or even seeking you out in your yard as I’ve experienced in the past.TIPS For Feeding Bluebirds:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Some people employ the method of making a sound, like whistling, while they offer the worms. Bluebirds will key in on the sound and associate that with the treat about to be given them. Its simple conditioning. 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 be adversely affected.

Domed feeders can be adjusted to help discourage larger birds.

Domed feeders can be adjusted to help discourage larger birds.

Bluebird feeders can be any small dish or tray. however I would not put this many mealworms out at one time.

Bluebird feeders can be any small dish or tray. however I would not put this many mealworms out at one time.

Barrier type feeders will limit the size of bird that can feed. These feeders may take longer to train your birds to use.

Barrier type feeders will limit the size of bird that can feed. These feeders may take longer to train your birds to use.

……Next week Spring visitors are coming! We will outline some of the more notable feeder birds you may see.

Get Ready for Bluebirds

In the coming weeks we will be sharing information about Bluebirds. We would like to address specific questions and concerns you may have that can then be shared with everyone. If you have questions regarding Bluebirds please email us at thewoodthrushshop@gmail.com and we’ll provide answers in our weekly blog.

Have you been watching and listening? Birds are singing and going through some of the motions of courtship. The breeding season is fast approaching. Its evident Eastern Bluebirds have already begun searching and competing 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. A few 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 have very specific needs for a nest-box location. Not true. Most things you hear about what Bluebirds need are very much over stated. 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. These perfect nest-sites generally never existed in nature.

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In fact it’s interesting to consider where Bluebirds nested before people started putting out nest-boxes. Bluebirds are considered a secondary cavity nester which means they will not excavate a nest, like a woodpecker, but use one that has been created already. Once upon a time secondary cavities were in great supply but through habitat loss and competition Bluebirds were “forced” to adapt to birdhouses, or what we refer to as nest-boxes. Using nest-boxes is example of Bluebirds adaptability. 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. 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, 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 good. However, it is a great time to do so in the next few weeks because the breeding season is fast approaching. The sooner they know the box is there the more likely they will consider using it this season.

And PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE remember do not let your desire to attract Bluebirds cause you to clean out other songbird’s nests like Chickadees, Wrens, Tufted Titmice, or White-breasted Nuthatch. In no way does cleaning out these birds nests ensure you will get Bluebirds. Chickadees typically nest earlier than Bluebirds and only once. So PLEASE let the Chickadees have the box if they have begun to nest.

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 nest-box and watch the process. It’s a lot of fun.

Goldfinches Beginning to Nest

While many of our most familiar backyard birds are near the end, or have already concluded, their breeding season, for the American Goldfinch it is just beginning.  Many of you have already seen a reduction in goldfinch numbers at your feeders as they begin to move away from feeders toward nesting areas. Goldfinches typically nest in June and July when certain nest materials, and more of their food sources, become available. 

The goldfinch’s main natural habitats are weedy fields and floodplains, where plants such as thistles and asters are common.  So, if you live close to one of these types of areas you may continue to see good numbers of goldfinches at your feeders.  If you live in a more forested area you will likely see far less goldfinches until they finish nesting.  So, don’t be concerned that something has happened to “your” goldfinches or you’ve done something wrong. They are simply transitioning into their nesting phase and will return to feeders in due time. 

The male and female locate a suitable nest site together. Nests are often near water.  At Hidden Lakes Park on McCrory Ln, which borders the Harpeth River, goldfinch nests are common to see.

The male may bring nest materials but the female builds the nest, usually in a shrub or sapling in a fairly open setting rather than in forest interior. The nest is often built high in a shrub, where two or three vertical branches join; usually shaded by clusters of leaves from above, but often open and visible from below. 

The nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female bonds the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches feed on. It takes the female about 6 days to build the nest. The finished nest is about 3 inches across on the outside and 2-4.5 inches high.

The female incubates about 95% of the time and takes 10-12 days. The male brings food to the female while she incubates.  The young leave the nest after 11-17 days. Both sexes tend to the young and are fed a regurgitated milky seed pulp.  Insects are rarely part of their diet.

Goldfinches are monogamous per year but commonly change mates between years.  

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. 

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 bird.org, 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 www.hummingbirds.net/map. Also a great site for hummingbird information is www.hummingbirdresearch.net

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.