Wild Ideas: The bluebird saga continues

A young Eastern bluebird demands food from its mother.
Basil via Wikimedia Commons
A young Eastern bluebird demands food from its mother.

As I wrote about recently, an Eastern Bluebird pair had set up housekeeping in a nesting box in my yard that my landlord had provided. A day after submitting that column, I noticed a sudden change in the birds’ behavior.

I’d been watching them through my bedroom window several times a day, so I got pretty familiar with their habits. While the male had been bringing food to the female, who incubates the eggs and only leaves the nest occasionally, now both were coming and going frequently, bringing food to the box. This meant only one thing: The eggs had hatched. Judging by the intervals at the box, I could tell the male was being true to his species and gender, giving the food to his mate to distribute to the young when she was on the nest, and feeding their young himself when she wasn’t.

As the days rolled on, I was itchy to open up the box to see how the hatchlings were doing, but since the pair had already gone through the trauma of having their first clutch of eggs in another box destroyed by a bear, I hesitated to cause them any more disruption.

I had been pretty confident that the box would be safe at night when I was there because of my fierce dog, who is ever on guard for bears. She loudly clears the yard the minute she gets any scent, which invariably precedes the bears as they come down the mountain.

One day I came home from my and my dog’s first night away in more than a year to find the pole that had held the nesting box bent to the ground and the box shattered, the nest on the ground, and the hatchlings gone, undoubtedly the work of a bear, probably the yearling that had been hanging around and was likely responsible for destroying the other box.

My heart sank. The pair had invested so much time in building their nest and caring for their brood, and now all was gone. And I had grown attached to the bluebirds as I watched their progress for the last month, looking forward to seeing the young birds leave the nest.

Worrying about the fate of the adults, I was relieved to see them both within a few minutes of my arrival, so they had survived but were obviously disturbed by what had happened. I had straightened the pole the box had been on – not sure why, except I couldn’t think of anything else to do – and each of the parents landed there a few times and flew off. Judging by the male’s mouthful of food, he may not have known what happened to his young. Male bluebirds sometimes do share the nesting box at night, sitting on the edge of the nest, according the Stokes “Guide to Bird Behavior,” but maybe not that night.

My landlord, who had checked the box while I was gone, reported that the eggs had indeed hatched. Judging by his description of the babies’ development, they had hatched out about two weeks before, which coincided with the changes I’d seen in the parents’ foraging behavior.

So what to do now? It was the middle of May, the bluebird pair had lost their reproductive investment twice, and my landlords and I agreed that there was no point in providing another opportunity for the bear. When I e-mailed the president of the Virginia Bluebird Society to see if she had advice about how to proceed, she wrote back saying we were not alone in dealing with bears raiding bluebird boxes and that she would forward my query to the VBS’ bear expert.

Within a couple of days, the bluebirds apparently made their own decision about the situation and disappeared. They haven’t returned. I haven’t heard back from VBS about the bear issue but hope to soon, since bears will undoubtedly continue to visit us here on the edge of Shenandoah National Park, and my landlords and I would still like to find a way to provide a suitable nesting situation for bluebirds.

The whole affair left us all a bit depressed but hopeful that the birds would survive on their own. It’s early enough that they could still raise a brood or two this year. They had been around all winter, so they may turn up again after the nesting season, if not sooner.

Postscript: Within a few days of the departure of the bluebird pair, a pair of Eastern Phoebes decided to build a nest over the cover for my kitchen-stove fan, just a few yards away from where the bluebird box had been. While they may not be as pretty as the bluebirds, they make up for it in their jaunty personality and athleticism – a lot of fun to watch if you can get over being awakened at dawn by the male’s loudly and persistently calling “phoe-be” to proclaim his territory.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 341 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”