By Jeannie Marcure

The arrival of the first bluebirds is a welcome sign that spring has returned to the Flathead. This year that event took place for me on March 13 when a Saturday morning drive on Smith Lake Road provided us with the first bluebird sightings of the season.  What birder’s (or bird-watcher’s) heart doesn’t beat a little faster at the sight of one of these brilliant birds perched jauntily on a fence post in the sunshine?

As members of the thrush family, bluebirds are relatives of the American Robin and Varied Thrush. Three kinds of bluebirds live in North America and Western Montana is home to two—Mountain and Western. Telling the males of the two species apart is fairly easy. The Mountain is all blue—a vivid sky blue on its back and wings and a slightly lighter blue on its chest. The Western male has a deep purplish blue on its head, throat, wings and tail and a rusty brick red on its chest. Differentiating between the two females is a little more challenging. Mountain females have a pale grayish-brown body and sky blue wings and tail while the Western females have a rusty wash on the breast, a slightly thicker bill and the back and wings are a more subdued blue.

Bluebirds prefer to live in open parklands, pastures and meadows or on forest edges and are often see perching on fence posts or small trees. They feed by gathering insects from foliage and are able to hover briefly to hawk insects from the air. They also frequently capture insects on the ground by dropping from a perch to capture the prey. This behavior called ground-sallying is often used by the Mountain Bluebird. Because sixty to eighty percent of their diet is insects, bluebirds are very beneficial birds to have as neighbors.   Male bluebirds return early to the nesting area to establish the breeding territory and advertise their presence by singing vigorously and aggressively trying to drive rival males away. After establishing the territory, bluebirds form strong pair bonds that last throughout the breeding season–usually for two broods. Nests are established in cavities in trees and snags and frequently in nest boxes. Only the female builds the nest, however the male sometimes acts as if he is helping, but he either brings no nest material or he drops it on the way. A nest of weed stems, grasses and twigs lined with fine grasses and feathers is placed in a natural tree cavity, an abandoned woodpecker hole or a birdhouse. The four to eight pale blue eggs hatch in approximately two weeks and the babies fledge about three weeks after that.

Until the early 70’s bluebird populations were in serious decline due to habitat loss and competition from House Sparrows but thanks to conservation efforts promoting the use of nest boxes, they are currently stable and even increasing in most areas.

If you would like to attract bluebirds to your yard, start by adding some nest boxes and providing nesting materials. Bluebird boxes can be purchased at many local hardware stores for about $5.00. If you prefer to make your own, I found some good patterns on the net at  http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/nestbox-plans/   Bluebirds like soft grasses and fragrant pine needles for their nests. Offer these materials in an empty suet feeder or simply gather bunches and situate them in the bark of a tree. Since collecting the appropriate materials can require hundreds of trips, the availability of these materials will be a strong factor in bringing the bluebirds to your yard. Also, like all insect eaters, bluebirds get thirsty and offering plenty of fresh water for drinking and bathing will make your yard more attractive to them. A birdbath full of splashing bluebirds is a sight you’ll long remember!

Facts for this article were gathered from The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, Stokes Field Guide to Western Birds and the North American Bluebird Society website:  http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/nabs-fact-sheets/