The bluebirds are coming; help them find homes

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Photo by KEITH CARLSON A mountain bluebird pair perches near a nest box.

Two species of bluebirds live in Idaho, the western bluebird and the mountain bluebird. Mountain bluebirds are larger and more brilliantly colored than western bluebirds. Both are beautiful, and are slightly smaller in size than robins. The mountain bluebird is the official Idaho State Bird.

Naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” This statement could apply to any of the N. American bluebird species. The males of each species sport brilliantly colored blue backs. The male mountain bluebird has a very bright blue back and is pale blue below. The female is mostly gray with a trace of blue on the wings and tail. The western bluebird is just slightly less brightly colored. Males and females of both species have some rust color on the breast.

Bluebirds live throughout Idaho in high desert juniper and mahogany, in forest meadows, in valleys, and on ridgelines. They are most common at elevations of 4,000 feet and higher.

Bluebirds are ground feeders, with grasshoppers being a favorite food. They also consume beetles, ants, wasps, caterpillars, crickets and even some berries.

The bluebird’s bill is not suited for creating nest cavities, so they make their nests in existing cavities excavated by woodpeckers or other animals. Nests are lined with grass, fine strips of bark and pine needles.

Bluebirds return to Idaho from their wintering grounds in the southwestern U.S. by late February or early March. Upon returning, they seek tree cavities for nesting. Since many trees with suitable nesting holes have been cut for firewood, cleared to make way for development or have been occupied by non-native starlings or house sparrows, some bluebirds do not nest because they do not find suitable nesting sites.

Man-made nest boxes help to fill the shortage of natural nest sites. Many Idahoans have already discovered the fun and satisfaction of building, placing and monitoring bluebird nest boxes.

The Panhandle Region office of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) has long been involved in coordinating the construction and distribution of bluebird nest boxes. For many years, volunteers and IDFG have worked together to build boxes for people interested in providing our state bird with a place to nest and raise young.

IDFG volunteers recently built another batch of bluebird nest boxes. These are now available at the Idaho Fish and Game office, 2885 W. Kathleen Ave., Coeur d’Alene. The cedar materials needed to build the boxes was donated by Gary Finney and Luke Finney, owners of Finney Logging. IDFG is asking for a donation of $10 per bluebird box to cover the cost of hardware and tools to cut and assemble the boxes. Funds raised will support the Idaho Master Naturalist Program in the Panhandle, and the Panhandle Region volunteer program.

We also have a pamphlet called “Building Homes for Idaho’s Bluebirds” available free of charge at the office. This contains plans for constructing boxes if you choose to make your own. There is also important information about how and where to place boxes so they are most likely to successfully attract bluebirds. You can pick one up at the IDFG office when you get your boxes, or, call us and we can email it to you.

If you already have bluebird boxes installed on your property, it is important to clean them out now in preparation for the nesting season. The brochure includes information on how to monitor and maintain boxes.

Boxes have the greatest likelihood of being used the first year if placed by late March. So people planning to build their own boxes are encouraged to pick this publication up as soon as possible. However, because bluebirds may move into boxes as late as mid-May, placement by then could allow boxes to still be used this year by late nesters.

• • •

Phil Cooper is a wildlife conservation educator employed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in the Panhandle Region.

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