The bluebird has been dubbed the harbinger of happiness, but the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is also a symbol of wildlife conservation success. In the early to mid-20th century, the bluebird population began to drop, and the species became rare in parts of its range. Severe winters led to further declines in the 1970s. However, the species has since rebounded, reaching a global breeding population of 22 million individuals.
Behind the Decline and Recovery
Habitat loss was one major reason for the decline. As a cavity-nesting bird, the bluebird historically nested in hollows in dead trees, typically in holes made by woodpeckers or other birds. This housing strategy left them with few nesting options in the increasingly suburban America. In addition, they faced stiff competition from invasive species for the available hollows. Specifically, the house sparrow and European starling, which are also cavity nesters, can outcompete the native bluebird—taking over their nest and destroying their eggs.
Thankfully, the decline did not go unnoticed as the little bird had captured the hearts of many birders. In 1978, a group of bluebird enthusiasts formed the North American Bluebird Society to create bluebird boxes to replace the missing tree cavities, as well as monitor and study the bluebird population. By carefully tailoring the box’s entrance hole, the boxes can even keep out the slightly larger European starling, although competition with these invasive species remains a problem today.
About the Bluebird
The male bluebird is easy to identify by his striking blue upper body and wings. He also has a red throat and white belly. The female is similar in color, but paler, with grey-blue wings and head. Their range spans across the eastern North America, extending as far south as Nicaragua.
The bluebird prefers habitats with open grassy areas or meadows—like we have at Charlotte’s Quest. This habitat is important for supporting the bluebird’s diet, which largely consists of insects, including grasshoppers, crickets, and larvae, which it catches on the ground. It will also eat fruit and berries, such as dogwood berries, sumac, and black cherries.
Bluebirds can have up to three broods a year and four to six eggs in each brood. The female builds the cup-like nest and incubates the eggs. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, young produced in the first brood usually leave their parents in summer, but young from subsequent broods often spend the winter with their parents. For the winter, these birds typically migrate to the southern United States or Mexico, with some flying as many as 2,000 miles for the trip.
Efforts at Charlotte’s Quest
Charlotte’s Quest is doing its part to support the rebounding bluebird population. A team of volunteers recently added six new bluebird houses to the park and restored the existing houses ahead of the nesting season, which typically starts in late March. The volunteers will continue to monitor the houses throughout the nesting season. Stay tuned to the Friends of Charlotte's Quest Facebook Group for future updates on our nests from volunteer Randy Miller, who is leading the project!