How to attract bluebirds

Bob Walz
Chisago County
Master Gardener
Are you a snow bird? The bluebird is, like almost 90 percent of our birds that migrate south for the winter and return in the spring. Have you seen your first bluebird? Are you asking yourself what I can do to attract bluebirds? What can I plant or how should I landscape my yard to attract bluebirds?
Male bluebirds return to our area in mid to late March. Female bluebirds follow about two weeks later, depending on the weather. Males will start nests in several nesting boxes, hoping that a female bluebird will choose one of his boxes. Bluebirds have plenty of  competition from other bluebirds, tree swallows, chickadees, wrens, house sparrows, European starlings and others secondary cavity dwellers. By secondary, I mean they usually seek out shelters used by woodpeckers and nuthatches or natural cavities.
Bluebirds were once nearly extinct in Minnesota. They flourished from 1880s to 1920s. Over the next 50 years, a combination of factors caused their numbers to radically decline. We started to remove trees that had been damaged by woodpeckers, replace wood fence posts with metal posts, and, what proved to be the most serious threat, we introduced non-native birds that competed for the ever decreasing number of secondary cavities and might even kill a bluebird or destroy its eggs or hatchlings to secure the potential nesting spot.
In the late 1970’s a movement began to try to restore our bluebird populations, the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota, later replicated in many other states. It involved providing nest boxes and monitoring those nest boxes to make sure these boxes were used by bluebirds, not house sparrows or other destructive competitors. Several nest box models were invented in    Minnesota, among them the Peterson Box and the Gilbertson PVC nest box.
Which is the best box? Which is the best placement of the boxes and on what kinds of poles? These and other questions evolved into today’s best practices. The first strategy was getting people to put up nest boxes, making up for the loss of natural cavities. I think we can remember youth groups building Peterson nest boxes and putting them up with the expectation that bluebirds would make it their home. Unfortunately, without monitoring these nest boxes, these unmonitored nests became the tombs rather than shelters. So the task of Bluebird Recovery Program of the last decade of the 20th century began removal of unmonitored nest boxes. Among the improvements, were the placement of bluebird boxes and trails, appropriate landscaping, and, in general, creating an ideal habitat. You are not likely to get bluebirds, nor should you try to attract bluebirds to an urban or wooded property. Bluebirds prefer an open meadow with short or mowed grass. Bluebirds are insectivores that eat insects close to the ground. They also need a nearby perch to look for insects, protect their youth and to provide a place for the nestlings, a place within reach for them for their initial flights.
As noted, male bluebirds arrive well before insects become active, so providing them insects or other food will help them survive and thrive. The provision of live mealworms is such a source of food, albeit it is also attractive to other birds, from chickadees to robins. Bluebirds will also feed on berries, so planting of spring fruits is also a key to landscaping for bluebirds. Among the plants that I would recommend include American Elder, black cherry, crabapples, chokecherry, wild grape and raspberries. It is probably a good idea to consult with a master gardener or a landscaper for specific plants and where to plant them. In general, you need an open field with short or mowed grass, like a golf course. Most backyards have too many trees for bluebirds.
The bottom line is that attracting bluebirds to your nest boxes involves more than just putting up nest boxes, it involves landscaping decision and monitoring of nest boxes. Just because your yard may not be good habitat for bluebirds, doesn’t mean that there aren’t open meadows in your community that would be good habitat. For example, there are 155 nest boxes in Wild River State Park and more than 30 at Anderson County Park.
Bluebirds are one of the most attractive songbirds. You can get up-close and personal with bluebirds; watching the babies leave the nest and even get them to eat out of your hand. I was recently appointed the BBRP Bluebird Coordinator for Chisago County. You can contact me for free consultation, whether you have landscaping questions about how to attract bluebirds, need information on best practices, need information on how to join Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota. In the meantime, enjoy America’s favorite song, the eastern bluebird.

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