Spring is here, even if March, as usual, is producing snowstorms. However, the snow has delayed the arrival of the first bluebird.
Or perhaps they have arrived and my network of reporters hasn’t informed me about it. If no one has seen a bluebird yet, it is most unusual. They often arrive in late February and usually are here in good numbers by the first week of March. These early birds are followed by the laggards, and by the end of March the main migration is finished and our nesting birds are here.
After that, a few migrants may still pass through going to nesting territories farther north. One of the best places to see early migrating bluebirds is in Jefferson County Open Space, Elk Meadow Park along Squaw Mountain Road and Evergreen Parkway, and in the meadow east of the park entrance on Stagecoach Boulevard.
These meadows are traditional congregating places for migrating mountain bluebirds both spring and fall, and you could see flocks of a hundred or more if you are there on the right day. Traditionally, I look for mountain bluebirds and Easter daisies in these areas each spring and frequently find them both on the same day.
The Evergreen Naturalists Audubon Society is holding its annual nest-box sale this year from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, March 13 and 14, at the Bergen Park King Soopers and at the Evergreen and Conifer Safeway stores. There will be chickadee, flicker and bluebird boxes for sale, and the supply is limited. You might want to call Bud Weare ahead of time to get your boxes.
The reason it is necessary to put up boxes to attract bluebirds is that they are cavity nesters, and we have been so diligent in our efforts to control tree diseases that there are very few dead trees left standing in the area. Live evergreen trees are not suitable because they ooze pitch and the wood is too hard.
Birds such as the hairy woodpecker and northern flicker, which have strong beaks to make nesting cavities, do not like to make them in live evergreens. They prefer dead or dying trees, which have no, or less, pitch and softer, decaying wood. These cavity builders do not usually use the same nest for more than one year, so the cavities are then available for smaller birds to use in following seasons.
Location is also important in placing your boxes. Bluebirds prefer boxes with the entrance holes facing east or southeast. This protects them from the worst storms and cold winds, which frequently come from the north or west. They also like to be greeted by the morning sun.
Chickadees often prefer to make their own nest cavity if they can find a rotten fencepost or small tree that is rotted enough for them to dig into with their sharp, tiny beaks. They will also use a bluebird nest box or other small boxes.
Many birds must make some attempt at making their own nest cavity to move through their breeding cycle. Nuthatches and chickadees can often be heard tap, tap, tapping away inside a nest box. It is not that they need more room but must make this attempt. For this reason, a few wood chips or a little sawdust in the bottom of the box will give them something to remove and make them think they are creating a cavity.
The TENAS bird boxes are a bit more expensive than they were a few years ago, but they are a bigger size, better for the bluebirds’ long tails, and made of cedar, so they do not need to be painted. However, old boxes need to be cleaned out every year before the newly arrived birds will use them. Baby bluebirds in a confined space can leave behind a very dirty nest. The boxes can be opened and the old dirty nest and feces removed.
I usually do mine on a nice fall day or very early spring day, but it is much warmer in the fall. However, as long as it is done, the time is not too important. I also scrub my boxes out with a brush and hot water that has a little bleach and detergent in it. I then throw some fresh water in to rinse them and let them dry in the sun and air for a day before I close them. This seems to have worked well for me and hopefully cuts down on the lice and other insects that prey on baby birds.
If swallows or other small birds take over your bluebird box, don’t despair; just put up another box. Bluebirds and many other small birds will nest lower and near small shrubs, so the babies will have something to hide in when they leave the nest. Swallows prefer a higher box with a clean sweep into it. They are amazing fliers, and it is great fun to be able to watch them swoop into the nest at full speed. One fully expects to see them crash into the back wall, but somehow they put on the brakes and stop. Their pleasant twittering is a nice accompaniment to their acrobatics, and they are the most efficient mosquito control available.
If you put your boxes on trees, they need a predator control both above and below them to keep squirrels, chipmunks and other predators from destroying the nest.