Anything can happen during the course of monitoring your bluebird trail from finding flying squirrels/mice inhabiting a box or learning that a racoon is making nightly egg raids. For now, I will attempt to discribe activities usually found at a typical bluebird nesting site which will give you at least some insight as to what to expect.
If a male bluebird arrives at your site alone, he will generally stay in the area calling for a mate. Sometimes they arrive already paired and may even have some of their previous offspring in their company. In either case, it seems to me that the female has the final say in choosing a nesting box. If the birds are satisfied with the site, the female will begin bringing nesting material into the house. The male will sometimes help with this chore and at times will bring food for the female who is busy constructing the nest. Once the nest is completed, you will see less activity at the house. Soon the female will begin to lay her eggs, one a day, usually in the morning. The birds will remain in the area but will minimize activity at the nesting box. After she has laid a clutch of eggs (normally three to five), the female will now spend most of her time incubating them. Occasionally she will leave the house to stretch, get a drink or take food from her mate. Meanwhile the male is busy defending his territory and foraging. He will appear at the house every 20 minutes or so with food for the female.
It takes approximately 12 to 14 days for the eggs to hatch. The young will remain in the nest for another 16 to 21 days, during which time both adults will be busy fetching food for them. This is the best time to watch your birds, as this phase of the nesting season brings the most activity at the box.
When the young leave the nest to become fledglings, the box will become inactive again while they learn to fly and gather food on their own, with the adults watching over them. This is usually when I will remove the old nest from the box. The adults may return and start the process all over again, with the juveniles sometimes helping to feed the second brood. On occasion, bluebirds will have as many as three broods during a season, although two is the norm.
At times, the adult bluebirds can use an extra hand, which is another reason to monitor your trail regularly through the season. I remember my first year, eggs kept disappearing from one of the houses. I reasoned that a raccoon was stealing them at night. The problem was solved by modifying the house: I nailed another 3/4" piece of wood with a 1 1/2" hole to the front (predator guard), so the thief could not reach the eggs.
Another problem bluebirds face during the warmer summer months are blowfly larvae. These are small football-shaped creatures, about the size of a small pea. The adult flies lay eggs in the nesting material. After hatching, they spend their larval stage in the nest, and live by sucking blood from the bluebird nestlings, undetected by the adult birds. This problem is easily dealt with by simply lifting up the nest and removing them. I usually go a step further and eraticate them. (Yes, throw them on the ground and stomp on them!) There may be times when the nest is so compacted from the weight of the nestlings, and so infested with larvae, that it must be removed. Gingerly take the nestlings and the nest from the house. Then fashion a new nest using the finest grass you can find, or pine needles if they are at hand, and replace the nestlings. With a severly infested nest it is doubtful the young birds would survive without this intervention. The two young nestlings in photo at left where photographed on an old tee shirt while a new nest was made for them.
There is no truth in the old wives' tale that adult birds will abandon their offspring if the young are touched by humans. Adult birds may chatter at you, and carry on a bit, but 10 minutes after you leave the nesting area life will return to normal, only healthier. Other birds, such as tree swallows (and on rare occasions, bluebirds) may dive-bomb you when you are near the nest. This can be a little unnerving if they brush your hat or hair. The trick here is not to think about Alfred Hitchcock's movie, "The Birds," but to carry on with the task at hand.
Speaking of other birds...tree swallows, wrens, tufted titmice, chickadees and house sparrows may be found using nesting boxes. All but the house sparrow are native species and are welcomed occupants along most bluebird trails. If fact, you will especially appreciate tree swallows nesting in your area, as they consume thousands, maybe millions, of flying insects.
House sparrows are a non-native species which are not protected by law like our native songbirds, and are generally regarded as a nuisance. Once you have gained some experience with sparrows, you will discover why they should NOT be allowed to nest in your bluebird trail.
As if I haven't completely bored you to death by now, I will be adding another page dealing with these nasty little birds in the near future. Once you have encountered them at your nesting site, I'm sure you will return to find out how to deal with house sparrows (coming soon).
GO TO: House Sparrow Page
Wish you all the best in the coming year...Ed
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