Thanks to extensive ecosystem and habitat changes, the ever popular eastern bluebird (“the songbird of happiness”) was once considered doomed to extinction. Although their numbers are now stable in America, mostly thanks to artificial nest boxes, the devastating freeze of 2021 killed thousands in East Texas. Late winter is historically the time to either clean out existing bluebird nest boxes or install new ones to help them recover.
It’s important to know that bluebirds are country birds, not city dwellers. They prefer wide open spaces like pastures, golf courses, parks, vacant lots, and cemeteries; not neighborhoods and cities packed with people, houses, buildings, or trees. You can also put away the bird seed because bluebirds are insect and berry eaters, not seed eaters. This means you need to lay off the insecticides and let your gardens go to the birds. Adults, as well as their young, all feed on insects during the growing season, supplemented by small berries during the winter. Some of the best berried plants for attracting bluebirds are possumhaw and other hollies, dogwoods, elderberry, Virginia creeper, pokeweed/pokeberry, snailseed, red cedar, hackberry (sugarberry), wax myrtle, smilax, rattan vine, blueberries, and farkleberries/sparkleberries (huckleberries). If you don’t have these in your landscape, at least leave them on the edge of your property, a vacant lot, or your place in the country if you have one.
Bluebirds need food, shelter, and water year-round. They have the potential to raise up to three broods a year here. It’s amusing to watch the parents trying to wean their first batch while starting a new nest and family. The grown children make quite a racket trying to attract their parents’ attention with animated gestures saying, “Feed me. Feed me now!”
One reason East Texas has so many bluebirds is there are both open areas for foraging and nesting, and forested areas full of insects and berries. The margins of woods are great places for adult birds as they can partake of the many insects in the open areas and the shelter, shade, and fruit of the woodland areas. If you have a choice when placing a bluebird nesting box, however, always choose the most open area you can find. Those boxes placed near wooded areas generally house equally cute Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, or flying squirrels. Make sure the nest boxes you put up can be opened so old nests can be removed between broods. Bluebirds like clean houses. Entrance holes should be exactly 1 ½ inches in diameter.
For more information about bluebirds in Texas visit texasbluebirdsociety.org.
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He is the author of Texas Fruit and Vegetable Gardening, Heirloom Gardening in the South, and The Rose Rustlers. You can read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com, read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com), and follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens” and “Rebel Eloy Emanis Pine Savanna and Bird Sanctuary.” More science-based lawn and gardening information from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service can be found at aggieturf.tamu.edu and aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu.