Bluebird Boxes – My Personal Observations

Years ago my brother and sister-in-law gave my parents a bluebird box as a Christmas present. It hung from a cherry tree in the rear of our Lancaster, PA yard until it eventually crumbled and fell off the tree, but it never attracted a bluebird. I never knew why.

In fact the first bluebird I ever saw in my life was many years later as a young adult in the 1980′s. The bluebirds built a nest in my friend’s bluebird box positioned on a pole in the middle of her expansive open lawn. She showed me how she regularly opened the side of the box to see the four young fledglings within. I was mesmerized by the mama and papa flying to and fro, feeding their young.The male’s vibrant azure blue color was strikingly beautiful, as was his red breast — an icon of American folklore.

Five young bluebirds

Five young bluebirds

Male Eastern Bluebird

Male Eastern Bluebird

As a boyscout my son Wes constructed his own bluebird box and painted it gray. We installed it on a pole behind our condominium in a similar lawn-type area, but all we ever got were sparrows.

Fast forward to a move to our home outside Philadelphia in 2003. Wes’s gray bluebird box made the trip with us and one of the first things we did was find a spot for it in a front-yard meadow next to the driveway, again on a pole. The first season it was up we had bluebirds nesting, not once but twice, in the same summer. They liked to perch on the light fixture atop the stone pillar located nearby before flying to the box.

Bluebird with big juicy caterpillar

Bluebird with big juicy caterpillar

Males stand guard on the box, staking their territory, after ceremonial peeking in and out, entering, leaving, back and forth many times, until they’re satisfied with their nest site.  It is from this perch that they often attract the females. They do this as early as winter.

I was fortunate enough to have received an assignment to install a native grassland in a local electric utility’s 30 acre transmission line corridor. The Right-of-Way also functions as a valuable wildlife corridor, and it’s a perfect nesting site for bluebirds. While doing my quarterly monitoring last week, I saw three bluebirds, one of them a male, perching on one of the new boxes. Perhaps they overwintered in the area.

My own property must be located on a large ant farm because every year my greatest challenge with all the bluebird – as well as other – nest boxes is to control the tiny black ants that colonize every bird box on the property. They appear shortly after the birds build their nests and have young. The ant nests are elaborate and full of eggs in the lower third of the box. I started wondering if they could actually have some sort of symbiotic relationship with the birds, the ants feeding on the bird droppings. I doubt it though because sometimes the ants there long after the birds are gone. I’ve experimented with ways to discourage the ants, but none have been completely successful. I’m all ears if you’ve experienced similar problems, and I’d love to hear your solutions if you have them. I can’t say I ever saw ants crawling on the young birds, but then I never felt it wise to ‘inspect’ them.

Often tree swallows build in bluebird boxes. They’re gorgeous, fascinating birds as well, and they have beautiful feather lined grass nests. Sadly, twice I found a tree swallows dead (trapped) in the gray empty bluebird box. I learned too late the birds enter, and with too smooth a surface, have nothing to cling to to exit. They can’t get the leverage they need to exit. Here’s a solution our new bluebird boxes now have: a metal netting which the bird clings to so he can reach the hole to exit. This is especially important to remember for anyone installing a new nest box. If you can’t go the wire mesh route, at the very least scratch a rough surface on the inner box surface below the hole so the bird can get out.

Wire mesh affixed below the hole provides the birds with a surface to cling to so they can exit.

Wire mesh affixed below the hole provides the birds with a surface to cling to so they can exit.

Try to get your bluebird boxes up soon, install a predator guard to keep snakes and raccoons from stealing the young, and until the birds start the nesting you’ll have shelter for downy woodpeckers to overnight. The woodpeckers and probably many other birds love them too for that purpose, and you will love the new friends that come to visit, even if they’re only overnight friends.

Bluebird box with predator guard in utility right-of-way wildlife corridor

Bluebird box with predator guard in utility right-of-way wildlife corridor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Lynn Miller says

    I have found an easy solution to discourage ants. I wrap two sided carpet tape around the post/pole.
    It holds up surprisingly well to the weather but does need to be replaced from time to time. Usually the ants get discouraged after a few attempts and give up all together. I have even successfully used it around the foundation of our house to keep out carpenter ants. Good Luck
    Lynn

  2. says

    Since putting up my blue bird nest box in 2007, I have had the pleasure of watching at least 15 broods fledge. One year was only two broods, but most years I get 3 or four broods (last year was a lucky 4). In 2010 I started a daily photo journal which I entitled twigs2fledge™, taking a daily photo from the first day the nest was started until it was no longer safe to open the nestbox to avoid early fledging. I’ve been lucky enough to watch “MY” babies take their first jump and flight. Blue birds are a most rewarding experience since they are very patient with the papparazzi. :)

    Endless entertainment!
    Loret recently posted..Birds: and what a week it was

  3. James C. Trager says

    The situation you describe with the ants sounds more like an aesthetic problem. The ants appreciate the heat of the boxes for incubating their brood. Also, ants are indeed known to obtain nutrients from bird droppings, especially in the nutrient-limited tropical rain forest canopy, but also in other ecosystems. But, from here, it seems that if birds are fledging from your nest boxes, that would seem good enough evidence that the ants are a human perception problem, rather than a problem for the birds.
    I am willing to be corrected about this, with additional information.

  4. says

    James,

    Boy, I really wish I knew for sure if the ants harm the nestlings. I don’t inspect the babies to see if the ants are crawling over them and/or biting them. That was against my better judgement for many reasons, not the least of which it is just too invasive. If the ants are crawling on the young birds, and not biting them, that process alone of me handling the birds could cause the ants to bite the birds, when it otherwise might not.

    Once I found one dead baby in the nest after the others had fledged.I have no idea what the cause of death was. I’m hoping someone has researched this phenomenon and has conclusive data.

    I really would like to find answers to this situation.
    Christina Kobland recently posted..A Message From Wildlife To Humans: Our Recommended ‘Do Not Do’ List for 2013

  5. says

    I have 5 bluebird houses around a 15 acre area on my property. The first bluebird house I bought was made by a local guy but he did not make it where you could open it. It is by far the most used house I have! The others I clean out, but this one I can’t. Over the weekend, I saw a pair going in and out but no activity in the others. Go figure! Also, the ones I have that open, I secure them with bungee cords to keep raccoons out. I am so ready for spring!
    brenda recently posted..Seed GiveAway #2!

    • says

      Brenda,
      That’s interesting–the birds liking the one that can’t be cleaned out. If there is one thing I have learned in my years observing wildlife, it is to be careful in assuming everything you are taught to be true.The common thought is that it is best to clean out bird boxes. Your observation supports the theory that it may not be the case. Common sense also tells us that nests in cavities in trees wouldn’t be cleaned, except by the birds themselves if something isn’t to their liking. So my advice is to be careful about removing debris, maybe delaying until March? I have observed birds sleeping in nest boxes with nest intact. It stands to reason they would be more comfortble in a nest than in a bare box.
      Christina Kobland recently posted..A Message From Wildlife To Humans: Our Recommended ‘Do Not Do’ List for 2013

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  1. [...] 148. Bluebird Boxes – My Personal Observations: In fact the first bluebird I ever saw in my life was many years later as a young adult in the 1980′s. The bluebirds built a nest in my friend’s bluebird box positioned on a pole in the middle of her expansive open lawn. She showed me how she regularly opened the side of the box to see the four young fledglings within. I was mesmerized by the mama and papa flying to and fro, feeding their young… ~Christina Kobland [...]

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