For the Birds: Bluebirds brighten a New England winter

Photo by Chris Bosak An eastern bluebird braves a New England winter and visit a backyard for mealworms, winter 2020.

I did two bird talks in New Hampshire last weekend and loved meeting everyone and talking about birds for a while.

In both talks, many questions and comments were about bluebirds. Everybody loves bluebirds, and these talks only confirmed that is true. And why not? They are beautiful birds and many of them are hardy enough to stay with us all winter. 

I have found that New Englanders appreciate the birds that stick with us year-round. When I did an informal survey many years ago to determine New England’s favorite bird, the chickadee and cardinal were the top two species named. Both birds, of course, are with us spring, summer, fall and winter. 

If I were to redo the survey, I would not be surprised if the bluebird didn’t crack the top two. I’m not sure which bird it would displace, but bluebirds certainly have been getting a lot of love lately.

New Englanders love their common loons as well. While loons may flee New England’s lakes and ponds in late fall, many of them settle for the winter in the region on Long Island Sound or off the Atlantic coast. 

Everybody loves to see bluebirds in the spring at their nest boxes bringing insects and worms to the babies. It is also fun to see them in the summer and fall with their fledglings. But winter seems to be the season when many people get the biggest thrill over seeing bluebirds. It is particularly gratifying to see them while there is snow on the ground and branches. Their bright blue coloring contrasts spectacularly with a fresh coating of snow.

Jim, an attendee at one of the talks, said there is something extra special, even spiritual, about seeing bluebirds. I couldn’t agree with him more.

There are three types of bluebirds in the United States. The western and mountain bluebirds live out West. Eastern bluebirds, as the name would suggest, live in the East. 

What was a little surprising to me is that eastern bluebirds nest throughout the entire East, northward into Canada and southward into Florida and even parts of Central America. For whatever reason, I tended to believe that they were a more northern bird until I saw one nesting in a tree hollow near my brother’s house in southern Florida.

Bluebirds are a prime example of how conservation efforts can work. They were declining significantly as a species due to a loss of nesting sites caused by habitat destruction and competition with introduced species such as starlings and house sparrows.

Thankfully, the decline was noticed (always the first step in solving a problem) and bluebird boxes became a critical conservation tool. The boxes were, and still are, built to exact specifications for the bluebird, right down to the size of the hole. They aren’t foolproof as other species sometimes get to the box first, but there’s no doubt the bluebird box program greatly helped the species.

Many people are surprised when they see bluebirds in the winter and wonder if it is an anomaly. Bluebirds do indeed regularly spend their winters in New England. Well, some of them anyway. Similar to American robins, their cousins in the thrush family, some eastern bluebirds migrate and some don’t. Of those that do migrate, some go a fair distance south and some go only a short distance. Many of the bluebirds we see in winter could be birds that nest farther north and come down here for the winter.

Like many New Englanders, I appreciate the ones that remain with us throughout the winter. New England winters can be long, cold and rather bland. A good bluebird sighting never fails to brighten things up.

3 thoughts on “For the Birds: Bluebirds brighten a New England winter

  1. I have had five bluebirds all winter at our feeders! I live in Stow, Ma I do provide meal worms! We have usually four of our five boxes filled in the spring!! They are already claiming them!! So much fun!

    Diane Pelletier

    Liked by 1 person

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