What do Irving Berlin, the guy who wrote “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson have in common? Easy: They all know the power of the bluebird.
For Berlin, it was “Blue skies smiling at me/Nothing but blue skies do I see/Bluebirds singing a song/Nothing but bluebirds all day long.” For Ray Gilbert (the “Zip-ADee-Doo-Dah” lyricist), Mr. Bluebird was on his shoulder. (It’s the truth! It’s actual!) And for Larson, what the bluebird means comes through loud and clear in a “Far Side” cartoon starring a sad sack named Ned: “The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his life, Ned was visited by the Chicken of Depression.”
Yes, the poets know it: no other bird has quite the same cachet, quite the “it” factor, as the bluebird. It’s hope, springtime, surprise, rebirth, and happiness all packed into a cute, feathery package.
The Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) has been making a comeback in South Carolina and nationwide in recent decades after a troubling period of decline. Most experts think the population decrease stemmed from factors such as increasing development, the use of pesticides and the introduction of aggressive predators such as European starlings and house sparrows.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that a concerted conservation effort in the 1960s and ’70s helped turn things around. The organization reports that between 1966 and 2010, bluebird populations increased by almost 2 percent each year. Today bluebirds make their home in the Lowcountry year round, perching on fences in open country or scouting for food and predators from power lines in more populated areas.
This is the time of year to start keeping your eyes peeled for males who are visiting local gardens for nest sites. On a bare tree with a lead-gray sky as a backdrop, the flash of brilliant blue from a male bluebird is a welcome shock to any system that’s tiring of winter’s chill. The male is more colorful than the female; he boasts a vivid royal blue back and head and a rust-colored breast. The female’s color is more subdued; her back is gray and her breast is a lighter tan than the male’s, but she does have those distinctive deep blues on her tail and wings.
Bluebirds typically don’t visit regular seed feeders, so your best bet if you want to attract them is to put out mealworms—they’re the prime rib of the bluebird world. In the garden, bluebirds will help control your insect population by eating spiders, crickets, beetles, caterpillars and other bugs. Among garden plants, bluebirds are drawn to those with berries or fruits, including Lowcountry favorites such as holly, dogwood, pyracantha, mistletoe, blackberry, blueberry and cedar.
Bluebird boxes are best located facing southeast in spots that have a few trees nearby but are mostly open. Building your own box can be a fun family DIY project that the kids can help with. Plenty of plans and instructions are available free online. Just be sure that the entrance hole for the birds is 1½ inches across; any bigger, and some of the larger birds that compete for nesting space are likely to take up residence. What’s neat is that the boxes have a hinged side that lets you open the box and check for signs of nest building or eggs.
Don’t attach the box to a tree—that just opens the door for squirrels, snakes, raccoons and other predators to access the nest, eggs and babies. If the box is mounted on a post or pole, use a baffle to ward off animal troublemakers.
In February and March, male bluebirds start building nests in their chosen spots. They’ll leave a few straws, pieces of grass, pine needles or other building supplies in a box, and the females will come along later and finish the construction. How to tell if they’ve become fruitful and multiplied? Things will go quiet for a few weeks (incubation), then you’ll notice a flurry of activity around the box—lots of coming and going. That’s a sign that the parents are busy bringing food in because there are hungry new mouths to feed.
While you’re enjoying your bluebird tenants, keep an eye out for rivals who will try to move in and take over the bluebird box—and harm any bluebird inhabitants. These competitors include Carolina chickadees, house sparrows, starlings, great crested flycatchers and nuthatches. Monitoring the nest is made easier because of that hinged door on the box. Just give a light tap to the side of the box (to give any tenants a heads-up), then open the door for a quick peek.
It’s common for bluebirds to lay four or five eggs, and it’s a treat to watch the young ones learn to fly and venture out on their own. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get to see a second and maybe even a third brood during the season. There’s something truly spirit lifting about watching the little fledglings earn their wings—in fact, it’s guaranteed to make that old Chicken of Depression permanently fly the coop.
Ann Thrash is a food, home and garden writer and editor who lives in Mount Pleasant.