Those of us in cities and suburbs may not think about attracting bluebirds, which are usually found in wilder or more rural settings. When bluebirds do nest or overwinter in cities or towns, they tend to be found in cemeteries, the expansive grounds surrounding college campuses (except where students gather), and similar areas that don’t see too much human activity.
Bluebirds need wide expanses of open grassland and scattered trees or fences that furnish nesting and roosting cavities. Like other thrushes, they feed on insects on the ground, but unlike their relatives, bluebirds don’t run on the ground to find them. Rather, they scrutinize the ground from a perch, drop down to grab a promising-looking insect, then return to their perch.
For a long time, people living in appropriate bluebird habitat have been setting out nest boxes. And since its founding in 1978, the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) has focused on researching best practices for constructing, maintaining, and monitoring bluebird boxes. Their website provides a wealth of free information, sound recommendations, and bluebird house plans.
People with nesting bluebirds can’t help but worry during spring cold snaps when few insects are available, and so feeding bluebirds has become popular. Like robins, bluebirds aren’t what we call “feeder birds,” but some have learned to come to special bluebird feeders for mealworms and certain types of suet-based bluebird mixtures. They are most likely to notice the food items in the first place if wiggly live mealworms attract their attention.
Mealworms do not provide a complete diet — in particular, they are low in calcium, an essential nutrient during the breeding season. Adult females need it for egg production and baby bluebirds for bone development. The NABS fact sheet about mealworms suggests putting the mealworms in a plastic bag with calcium carbonate or calcium citrate and gently shaking it to coat the mealworms before setting them out. Even with that calcium boost, NABS warns, “Offer mealworms in limited quantities just once or twice a day unless poor weather conditions dictate more frequent feeding.”
Some of us with urban or suburban backyards luck into attracting bluebirds during migration. After all, to get from their breeding territory to their wintering grounds, bluebirds can’t pull out a communicator and say, “Beam me up, Scotty!” They must fly over a lot of habitat that would be unsuitable for the long term but can furnish quick, healthy meals during the journey.
They’re unlikely to notice feeding stations, but as they travel, they do pay attention to fruiting trees and shrubs. A few times over the years, I’ve seen them in my non-native flowering crabapple, and some native plants they’re known to frequent include flowering dogwood, eastern red cedar, and American elderberry. Planting these does not guarantee that you’ll attract bluebirds, but you will definitely attract plenty of other native birds, including vireos, thrashers, catbirds, mockingbirds, thrushes, and orioles — maybe not the “bluebird of happiness,” but happiness-inducing, nonetheless.
This article was first published in the “Attracting Birds” column in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.