Setting Up a Bluebird Trail Part 1: Why?

This is the perfect time of year to plan and prepare for the coming of the bluebirds. If you are serious about birding, you really should consider putting in a bluebird box or two. Several years ago my husband and his father started putting in blue bird houses following the trails that we had developed throughout our rural properties. Now every Spring we anxiously wait to see the first bluebird pair fly in and routinely check the boxes to watch for nestlings. Some years we’ve been successful, others we have not, but every year has been worthwhile!

Years ago bluebirds had many natural nesting cavities. They prefer open spaces at the edge of forests and would use old woodpecker nests, open knot holes in trees and other natural cavities or even rock crevices. But the introduction of the house sparrow and European starling changed all of that. These two invasive species not only took over those natural nesting cavities, but they began to prey on the bluebirds themselves, causing the bluebird population to dwindle.

Now, these beautiful birds are on a comeback thanks to many bird lovers who have put in and maintained man-made nest boxes. But the bluebirds are not the only ones to benefit. It is a joy for any bird watcher to hear the beautiful song of the bluebird and to watch the brilliant flash of blue as it flies by. As Henry David Thoreau said, “He carries the sky on his back.”

Ladies Day Out? Feeding Habits of the Cardinal

We were eating lunch the other day when we noticed that we had two female cardinals at our feeder. They are a little harder to distinguish with their muted red colors, but the little plume on the top of their heads gave them away! The kids had a great time making up stories about “Ladies Day Out” and wondering where their husbands were (probably at home watching the football games!) Then today we noticed two male cardinals feeding at the same feeder. We decide that the gals must have given our little eatery a “thumbs up” and spread the word!

Actually, it is believed that although cardinals do mate for life, during the winter months the cardinals won’t allow the female to feed with him. That will all change in a few months when Spring comes and the male birds can be seen tenderly feeding the females choice tidbits as a part of their mating rituals.

Cardinals are usually ground feeders but during the winter months they will come to a platform feeder or one with a perch. They aren’t picky when it comes to food though! They will eat almost anything offered in a feeder but some of there favorites include sunflower seeds, corn and suet.

Bluebird Maintenance

One of my favorite birds is the bluebird. A few years ago my husband and his father started a small bluebird trail out in the pasture and for several years have added a few more houses. We’ve had some good years with many boxes filled with bluebird pairs and some not so good years when predators or nuisance birds moved in. We have learned that fall and winter maintenance are key. In late fall, once all of the bluebirds have flown south, we carefully clean out the nests, removing all the nesting materials. Then we plug the holes with steel wool. This prevents the bluebird houses from becoming home to the nuisance mice, chipmunks and squirrels. These critters have been known to chew out a larger hole and move right in to an empty bluebird house. Once they’ve moved in, they are hard to get out! They have even been know to return to the nest box after being removed and kill the nestlings and adult bluebirds.

We have in the past left the boxes open all winter hoping to attract the beneficial songbirds, such as nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, or downy woodpeckers, but have found that here in the county side, the mice, squirrels, and chipmunks are too much of a nuisance. So now, the boxes are closed tight all winter to keep them free from intruders and will be opened and ready for occupancy next spring when the bluebirds return.

A Perfect Day in Autumn

An unbelievably perfect autumn day in the midwest! After a week of rain, the sun came out and we have beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures. I enjoyed a walk in the woods, with a lengthy stop on the dock of our pond to daydream a little. It’s amazing the problems that will work themselves out while you’re sitting on a dock with water lapping all around and blue skies hanging above. I was in need of a little “dock time” to relax and recharge. The leaves were swirling around above my head, catching air currents, then dropping to the pond. There the curled up leaves floated like tiny sailboats in the wind. I could hear the wind blowing, the crickets chirping, and every once in a while a fish coming up for air. Beautiful.

I took the long way home, along bridge trail. It winds its way from the pond deeper into the woods and is named because of a bridge we built that crosses the ravine (not a very creative title for a very beautiful trail.) As I rounded the last curve of the trail before the bridge, the corner of my eye caught sight of a very large bird taking off from a tree. My first thought was a great blue heron, but I was too far from the pond. I’m wondering if I spotted our elusive owl! We know she nests above the ravine near the bridge and we have caught glimpses of her in the past, and we think we have discovered her nest. We have yet to identify her, but every spotting gives us another clue!

It was a perfect way to end a perfect walk on a perfect autumn day!

Cold, Soggy Mess

I’ll have to admit, the weather is certainly not conducive to bird watching. Round after round of rain have made the ground saturated and the farm yard a big muddy mess. Even our free-ranging chickens are sticking closer to the coop. Being Red Comets and Rhode Islands Reds, a few rain drops usually doesn’t bother them much. This week-long deluge is a different story.

We also have 100 Cornish-Cross broilers that are about 6 weeks old and they really don’t like the wet weather! My 10 year old son and I just spent a long half hour rounding them up, making sure they were okay and under cover for another wet night. By the way, did you know that wet chicken manure is very slippery….enough said!

My brother-in-law just loves the rainy days for watching nature, especially in the spring and the fall. He just throws on his slicker, grabs the binoculars and takes off on a very soggy nature hike. It always amazes me the things he would see that on a normal day we would miss. Things like migrating birds sitting on the ponds waiting, momma deer and the fawns quietly feeding in the underbrush, pond mammals like mink or muskrats swimming. I wonder if the gentle sound of the rain and the wind hid the sound of his approaching?

Maybe tomorrow instead of bemoaning another day of rain and the extra work it entails, I should embrace it. Maybe I should leave the warmth and dryness of the house and the mud puddles of the farm yard to venture out through the pastures, the prairie and the woodlands. Maybe then I would see a different side of a rainy day and appreciate it all the more.