Getting the Blues

Getting the Blues


After the last issue of IORVA we received a request for an article on how to attract bluebirds. Happy to oblige, but attracting bluebirds is like dating. You can do your best to attract someone, but it all comes down to luck and chemistry. Bluebirds, like lonely hearts, are complicated critters. 


With their pretty plumage, sweet songs, and voracious appetite for insects, bluebirds are a great addition to any yard. Unfortunately they are on the decline due to the introduction of invasive species like house sparrows and European starlings who compete for cavity-nesting locations to raise their broods. Between competition with other birds, decreased natural nesting areas, and changing weather patterns, the bluebird population has dropped to 10% of what it was in the late 1800’s.


The best way to help, and to attract them, is to provide a nesting box in an alluring location for them, but one that’s less attractive to their competitors. Start by picking up a bird house designed for bluebirds at your local hardware, big box store or online. The following are some tips I’ve picked up over the years that will increase your odds of success, but as warned there are a lot of factors to consider, and some luck is involved. 


Bluebirds like sunny, open areas close to short grass where they can catch insects, so the best placement is facing a grassy location. To keep you on your toes, they also have a preference for boxes facing east. Their second choice is north, followed by south and west. 


They should also be about 50 feet away from scrub or wooded areas so the house is less attractive to house wrens who will go out of their way to destroy blue bird eggs if they find them in their territory. Don’t mount your house too close to buildings, as structures attract house sparrows who compete for the nesting box, and are more aggressive than blue birds. 


The house should be mounted on a pole about 4-6 feet above the ground. A good rule of thumb is that the entrance hole should be at your eye level. Some people have had luck mounting the boxes on trees or salt treated posts, but generally that leaves them more vulnerable to predators like snakes and squirrels. Your best bet is a metal pole with a baffle underneath it to deter creepy crawlies. 


On top of competition with other species, bluebirds compete with themselves, and boxes should be 100+ yards from each other. If space is limited, you can try pairing two boxes within 18-20 feet of each other, but any other boxes will need to be 100 yards away from them. 


Here’s the good news-once they nest in your box, odds are very good that they will return year after year. Clean out the box each Fall, and make sure the entrance hole stays at 1½ inches. Frequently older boxes are eventually ignored since the entrance hole has been clawed or chewed to a larger size. A great way to revitalize an old house, or keep a new one in top shape is to use a metal portal around the entrance, which keeps it the exact size bluebirds prefer, and prevents the hole from being chewed or worn larger. 

A few final tips if you’ve hung in there so far – when purchasing a bluebird house, make sure it has an access door to make cleaning them out easier, and my preference is cedar. It naturally keeps insects away and weathers nicely. Lowes carries a nicely made one for $13.98. To make your yard even more attractive, bluebirds love dried mealworms and suet, and like all birds they appreciate a water source. It’s a bit of work to get it right, but it’s worth it. They really do bring happiness, when you see bright blue puffballs picking through your lawn for insects, it warms your heart.


Photo courtesy of Ginger Howard Schiffner