A century ago, bluebirds experienced a steep decline due to habitat loss. We’re lucky to have them with us still today.
Before our contemporary understanding of ecology, narrow management goals like eliminating all standing dead trees to prevent forest fires, or killing every insect that might reduce crop yields, seemed helpful.
But eliminating our human worries almost wrecked the bluebird’s world.
Thankfully, in the mid-1900s, public concern emerged over nature’s losses, and we began to rethink some of these damaging management practices.
Even with a recovering food supply, the lack of suitable nesting sites for bluebirds to raise their young presented a massive challenge. In 1978, the North American Bluebird Society (NABS), under the leadership of founder Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, began to build, install, and spread the word about bluebird nesting boxes as a key to their recovery.
Millions of bluebird boxes and thousands of bluebird trails later, within the lifespan of Gen X, this traditional symbol of love, hope, and happiness has returned from the brink to become a common resident wherever the habitat is favorable.
To attract bluebirds to your backyard, keep reading to learn the keys to success.
Where Do Bluebirds Live?
Bluebirds are cavity-nesters, meaning they build their nests within sheltered spaces away from predators – cavities or small chambers. Their diet consists of mostly insects.
North America is home to three distinct bluebird species that share many similarities but differ in appearance and range: the Eastern bluebird, Mountain bluebird, and Western bluebird.
Only those of us who live within their range can expect to attract them to our yards, and the good news is that most Americans and Canadians live in bluebird country.
Eastern bluebirds are found east of the Rocky Mountains from southeast Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. They mostly live in open grassy meadows with widely spaced trees or fields surrounded by trees. Eastern bluebirds are often found in farm fields, golf courses, along roadsides, and along power lines. In the southern parts of its range, it does not migrate, but those in the coldest areas search out more productive feeding grounds for winter.
Mountain bluebirds breed in an area that extends from southern Alaska to Manitoba to western Nebraska to California. They can be found in prairie, sagebrush, and even tundra – any open country with some trees that offer nesting cavities. Mountain bluebirds are the most migratory of the three bluebird species. They are commonly seen in high elevations during the breeding season but seek lower altitudes and more southerly latitudes for the winter.
Western bluebirds live in an area extending from British Columbia and western Alberta in Canada to Baja, Mexico, eastward throughout the Rocky Mountains to eastern New Mexico. They prefer open evergreen or deciduous woodlands. Birders also find them in backyards and farmland, from the coast to the mountains. Western bluebirds are considered partially migratory in that many are year-round residents, but those that breed in the colder portions of the range will seek mild weather for overwintering.
How to Make a Bluebird Habitat
Habitat includes all of the elements that a species needs for survival: sources of food, water, shelter, and a place to raise young. As noted earlier, bluebirds generally prefer open country dotted with trees. If you live in a dense forest, chances are slim that bluebirds are in your immediate area.
Still, most suburban landscapes offer many structural elements that bluebirds recognize as home: a grassy lawn and other low groundcover areas, a shade tree or two, and a few shrubs. You simply need to hone in on the specifics.
1. Add Native Plants
The best landscapes for bluebirds are heavy on native plants. In addition to a wide expanse of (preferably weedy) lawns, set a goal of planting 70 percent or more native trees, shrubs, and perennials. This is another reason to rewild your lawn.
But not just any native plants.
Choose trees like oaks and cherries that support a diversity of insects throughout the growing season that will, in turn, serve as bluebird food. Add berry-producing plants like hollies, dogwoods, hawthorns, sumacs, junipers, and others for a balanced diet year-round.
2. Add a Feeder
Bird feeders are less about offering a primary food source and more about bringing the birds to a central location for convenient viewing.
The most important considerations are feeder type, location, and type of bird food.
As primary insect eaters, birdseed feeders are not attractive to bluebirds. They want insects; more on that in a moment. As for the feeder type, choose a platform, tray, fly-through, or ground feeder so that the birds can see what you have to offer. Place the feeder in an exposed part of the yard at about waist height.
When setting up feeders, it’s a good idea to be mindful of your pets as you don’t want to create a bird buffet for your cat or dog.
3. Use Bluebird Food
One of the best foods to attract bluebirds is mealworms. Mealworms are darkling beetle larvae that you can raise at home for live/fresh feeding or purchase freeze-dried and packaged as bird food. Some folks mix the two to get bluebirds used to the dried product and gradually change the ratio until it’s all dried.
Another good bluebird food, especially in winter, is suet. Suet is a mixture of fat and other food products like dried berries and insects. The high-fat content gives the birds added energy for cold weather. You can easily make your own suet blocks with our recipe. Don’t forget to add mealworms!
4. Add a Birdbath
Water is critical for survival, especially in drought and extreme cold. Set up a birdbath near, but not beneath, your feeding station with just 1 or 2 inches of water for bluebirds to drink and bathe year-round.
Change the water every two or three days to keep it fresh. Maintain sanitation by scrubbing the birdbath every couple of weeks with a stiff brush and a solution of one part white vinegar and nine parts water.
If birds aren’t visiting your birdbath, add a solar fountain pump for a subtle bubbling noise that will pique their interest. The running water will also deter mosquitoes. In cold weather, use a birdbath heater to keep it from freezing solid.
5. Install a Nesting Box
Bluebirds are cavity nesters, but they cannot excavate their cavities. Before we set out to eliminate every dead and dying tree from the landscape, they used existing cavities in dead trees, abandoned woodpecker holes, and even holes in wooden fence posts.
Since the 1970s, more bluebirds have likely fledged in human-made nesting boxes than in natural cavities. If bluebirds live in your area, install a bluebird box, and you can enjoy watching the annual progression of nesting, feeding young, and fledging – perhaps two or three broods per year – in your backyard.
If you plan to set up a bluebird house, build or buy one designed specifically for bluebirds. They require specific interior dimensions, ventilation, and entry size, and the house must be placed between 4-7 feet above the ground. Even the orientation matters, east-facing is best. Care must also be taken to guard against predators and cavity-nesting competitors.
Monitor and Maintain the Area
Once you’ve attracted bluebirds to your yard, keep them coming back year after year with a bit of routine maintenance.
- Evict house sparrows and starlings that attempt to nest in bluebird houses
- Use baffles and entrance guards to protect nesting boxes from predators like cats, raccoons, and squirrels
- Keep grassy areas mowed for stress-free feeding
- Provide 3-4 foot high perches for bluebirds to forage from
- Avoid using insecticides
- Allow standing dead trees and dead tree limbs to stay, if they don’t present a safety hazard