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Bluebirds bring happiness to fields and yards

I didn't see my first bluebird until almost the second week of April this year. In past years, I have often seen or heard a singing male by - at the earliest - the last week of March. However, as many of you already know, the spring of 2009 has been an interesting, rollercoaster of a ride; one day it's windy and cold, the next it's sunny and warm.

Nevertheless, in preparation for the arrival of this beloved species of bird, I made certain that all of the bluebird houses I've erected over the years were ready for occupancy. Upon cleaning the houses, I was delighted to discover many had been used by bluebirds last summer. Some, however, contained the old nests of tree swallows, while a couple of others hadn't been used at all - not even a mouse in the house!

This spring, I added about a dozen more bluebird houses to the assortment of nest boxes that I maintain. It has become a chore of course, but a chore I adore. Moreover, as anyone who appreciates bluebirds can attest, it's a labor of love. Providing nesting sites for bluebirds through the construction and placement of nest boxes is not only a gratifying hobby, it's also enormously beneficial for cavity nesting bluebirds.

For sure, few birds receive as much attention as the eastern bluebird. And rightly so. The male's blue plumage, rusty red breast, and softly delivered warbled song are easy on the eyes and ears. What's more, the bluebirds' devotion to their young, not to mention their acceptance of artificial nesting boxes, makes them a favorite of bird lovers everywhere.

Four states have adopted the bluebird as their state bird. The bluebird is also the focus of many organizations, societies, and events devoted entirely to bluebird awareness and conservation. All over North America in prime bluebird habitats, countless numbers of ambitious projects have been implemented to assist in the bluebird's well being. Miles of "bluebird trails" with erected bluebird houses along the way have been established for both birds and people to enjoy.

Belonging to the family Turdidae, the eastern bluebird is classified as a species of thrush. Other members of this family include the well known American robin, the mountain bluebird, the western bluebird, and the many different species of thrushes such as wood, Swainson's and hermit thrushes. A relatively small songbird, the eastern bluebird is about 5-7 inches in length with a wingspan of about 13 inches.

Though a few other species of birds inhabiting North America are blue in color, only the bluebird has a reddish breast. The blue jay, for instance, which is much larger, has a whitish breast and a crested head. Meanwhile, the indigo bunting and blue grosbeak have all-blue breasts. As well, the bluebird, as my field guidebook reads, has a slight "hunched posture, eye ring, and the blue in wings and tail."

Eastern bluebirds receive much competition for nest sites from other cavity nesting passerines such as non-native house sparrows and European starlings, in addition to native cavity seeking birds such as tree swallows and house wrens. Unfortunately, these species of birds, which are more aggressive than bluebirds, will sometimes out-compete eastern bluebirds for available artificial and natural cavities.

As I implied earlier, eastern bluebirds usually arrive in northern Minnesota by early April. They favor open areas with short or sparse grassy areas free of underbrush for potential nest sites. Prime locations tend to be rural, mowed or grazed areas, prairies, and near road right-of-ways. Bluebirds commonly perch from power lines, fence posts, or nearby trees to scan the vicinity for flying and crawling insects.

Each spring, male bluebirds search large areas for acceptable nesting cavities. The female follows along as her mate searches. Fine grass is typically used to build neat, cup-shaped nests inside tree cavities or nest boxes. An average of five pale-blue eggs are laid, one each day, and are incubated for about two weeks.

The young bluebirds are cared for by both parents in the nest on a diet of insects for 16-23 days. Second broods are often raised after the first brood fledges. Interestingly, the male usually cares for the fledged first brood while the female begins incubating the eggs of the second brood. Sometimes older fledglings will even assist feeding the second brood.

As you enjoy your bluebirds this summer, consider building a few bluebird houses - any birdhouse for that matter - for next summer. It's a worthwhile and rewarding hobby for young and old alike. Abundant and simple designs can be viewed and printed from the Internet or selected from the many books devoted to the subject, including Minnesota DNR non-game biologist and bird expert Carrol Henderson's ever-popular book, "Woodworking for Wildlife."

Eastern bluebirds, a prize for the eyes for all birdwatchers, are one of the most watchable avian friends among us. Mention bluebirds in a room where wildlife enthusiasts abound, and you're certain to make plenty of friends.

Indeed, the season of songbirds is finally here as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at