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Bluebirds – Ornithology


Bluebirds, family Turdidae,  belong to the genus Sialia, from the Greek meaning “a kind of bird.” Not a very helpful description. The three Sialia species, all North American, are the Eastern Bluebird, Western Bluebird, and Mountain Bluebird, semi-descriptive but not very imaginative names. At 7 inches long with a 13 -inch wingspread, they are small birds with a small, thin bill. Eastern Bluebirds are blue-bodied with a buffy orange chest and chin. Western Bluebirds look similar but their blue is slightly brighter and a blue throat resides above their buffy orange chest. The Mountain Bluebird lacks any orange and is a dusty blue gray all over. Insect eaters, all three species prefer open woodlands or grasslands where they can pursue prey. Avian Report has a nice article on the differences between the species.

Eastern Bluebird

Bluebirds nest in cavities. In parts of the country bluebirds are declining, partly because of habitat destruction and partly because of the dearth of nesting sites. Many cavities have been usurped by Eurasian Starlings and House Sparrows, dead trees have been felled to decrease fire danger, and wooden fence posts have been replaced by plastic or metal ones, impossible for woodpeckers to create cavities in. There have been increases in some parts of the country where people have been motivated to erect bluebird houses. In 1978 Dr. Lawrence Zeleny founded the North America Bluebird Society in order to promote the preservation of bluebirds by putting up nest boxes. Zeleny dedicated much of his life to providing nest boxes and managing bluebird trails. (There is also the NWTF Eastern Bluebird Conservation organization.)

Western Bluebird – Oregon Conservation Strategy
Western Bluebird

Sometimes Tree Swallows, smaller than bluebirds, will compete with them for a nest box. Bluebirds may demonstrate aggressive behaviors to protect their boxes. Tree Swallows rely on screaming, persistent intrusions, dive-bombing, and pecking on the fly to intimidate bluebirds. In contrast, a bluebird’s usual tactic is to guard the box, make hostile displays, and only as a last resort flies out to intercept the swallow, sometimes grappling with it and even tumbling with it to the ground. I have observed this, but I have also observed a pair of Tree Swallows who waited a week or more, peacefully coexisting with an incubating nest of Western Bluebirds. The Tree Swallows just bided their time sitting on the box when they were not out feeding. When the young bluebirds fledged, the Tree Swallows moved into the box. Everyone was happy. There is even an example of an Eastern Bluebird brooding young Tree Swallows.

File:Mountain Bluebird 6900vv.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Mountain Bluebird

Bluebirds will nest 2-4 times a year, depending on conditions. Not being the most loyal of spouses, it is not uncommon for a brood of 4-5 eggs to have as many fathers.

The spiritual meaning of bluebird is joy and happiness. This ancient belief spans nearly every culture, from ancient China to Native American and European folklore. Funny thing, there are no bluebirds in China or Europe. I have no idea what the bird in China might be, but in Europe, House Martins are sometimes mistakenly called bluebirds and there is even a song, There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover, written in 1941 in the midst of WWII.

May the bluebird of happiness fly up your nose. Whatever that means.

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