Q: This year we had three tree swallow eggs, but the nest was late and invaded by wasps and never hatched. Did the adults quit coming because the wasps moved in or did the wasps move in because there was no activity?
A: With the nest and eggs coming late in the season, the nest was more than likely abandoned and then the wasps moved in. Once bluebirds or tree swallows have claimed a box, wasps usually don’t move in; or if they do, they seem to share the box compatibly. If wasps have already claimed a box, bluebirds or tree swallows will not nest in the box.
Q: I cannot figure out why we can’t attract bluebirds? We’ve been trying for two years now – any suggestions would be welcome.
A: Don’t give up. With the population of bluebirds in Nebraska increasing each year, your chances of attracting them also increases. It is also very helpful if you’ve had bluebirds in your area in the past. Habitat is the most important factor in attracting bluebirds. Boxes should be placed in open areas of short grass (where it is easier for the bluebird to find insects). It is also very important to have scattered trees, bushes, fence lines, etc., in close proximity for the bluebirds to perch on to look for food. If you’ve had a box in the same location for two or three years and have had no bluebird activity, moving that box as little as 50 feet could make a difference.
Q: Is there any special location or plants, etc. that bluebirds need?
A: Having plants and trees available for bluebirds and other birds is very important, both for cover and as a food source. Now is a good time to give thought to your spring plantings. Cover and food sources are very important to all wildlife, especially in times of inclement weather or if bluebirds decide to winter over in your area. Click here for more information on plantings.
Q: What color are bluebirds when hatched? Do birds come back to the house after being fl edged or do they live in trees?
A: When bluebirds first hatch they are almost completely naked, pink in color, eyes sealed, with sparse tufts of down. It is usually around day 12 when the wing feathers are pronounced enough to sex the birds (males are intense blue; females are a more muted blue/gray). This information was taken from “Mountain Bluebird Trail Monitoring Guide” by Myrna Pearman of Alberta, Canada. This is an excellent source of information and includes a series of colored photos showing bluebird nestlings from Day 0 to Day 15. This booklet is available through Bluebirds Across Nebraska for $5.00 (S & H included).
The fledgling bluebirds do not return back to the box once they leave. The parents almost always take them to an area with heavy cover where they teach them to forage for food on their own. After a week or two, the parents usually bring the nestlings more into the open.
Q: I am concerned about all the tree swallows I am fl edging. I would like ideas on how to keep them out of my boxes.
A: Over the past ten years, the tree swallow population along with the bluebird population has skyrocketed. Bluebird and tree swallow habitat is very similar and there is a definite competition between the two for boxes. Box pairing (placing two boxes approximately 10 feet apart) does help as the two species will normally nest compatibly side by side when two boxes are available. However, even when boxes are paired, the tree swallow, being a more aggressive bird, is known to chase bluebirds away from its box. In the spring, bluebirds usually return first and are able to complete their first nest before the tree swallows arrive.
Q: Seems to be an abundance of sparrows this year. How to I keep them out of my bluebird houses?
A: Avoid placing boxes near farmyards, feedlots, barns, abandoned houses or out buildings. Even areas where there is junked farm machinery tend to attract house sparrows. The Gilbertson PVC box is the most sparrow resistant box available. Although not 100% sparrow proof, it is very uncommon for sparrows to nest in this box. Both in-box trapping and ground trapping are effective ways to control sparrow populations. Sparrows are not a native bird and are not a protected species. There are several excellent sparrow traps available. Click here for more information on House Sparrow Control.
Q: PVC box had a dead adult bluebird in it. The nest had barely been begun. Could [the bluebird] have had difficulty getting out of the smooth round cylinder?
A: It is more common to find dead tree swallows in a box early in the season than bluebirds. Tree swallows return very weak from migration and if their food source (flying insects) is not available, it is not uncommon for them to enter a box and be too weak to get out. It is important to have scratch marks beneath the entrance hole in PVC boxes. If you have a box without those scratch marks, they can be easily added with a screw driver or a pocket knife. It is possible the bluebird was too weak to leave the box or it could have died from other causes such as West Nile Virus.
Q: For a week, a male bluebird tried to get into our home by hitting the windows continuously during the day. We have 5 very large windows and he fl ew into them all day. What can we do about this?”
A: There are two main reasons that birds fl y into windows. One is that they see a reflection in the glass and think it’s an extension of their environment. This is where the majority of window kills come from. The other reason is that the male bird sees its reflection in the window and thinks that it is another male of the same species – he then attacks the glass, thinking he’s defending his territory. This is also common with Cardinals and Robins.
Bird & hawk silhouettes seem ineffective. Mylar and ribbon strips so seem to help some. There are new products available at local bird stores that are effective in helping to solve this problem.
Q: I am confused about the level of contact we observers are allowed/encouraged to have with the birds. One source tells me to reach in and pick up the baby birds and pet them (and count them), but another source says to leave them alone or they fl edge too soon. Which is right?”
A: Unless a nest is wet or infested with ants or other insects necessitating the removal of the nestlings to replace the nest, there is absolutely no reason to handle the nestlings and it is not recommended. If something happens to the parents and the nestlings are abandoned, the nestlings may be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator or placed in a box with nestlings of approximately the same age (as long as there are no more than six nestlings). Monitoring a bluebird box should be done quickly with a minimal amount of time spent at the box.
Q: My boxes were all infested with mites so I sprayed them with a milk house spray called “Fly Bomb”. In one of our past newsletters, I read that sprays with pyrethrins would be safe to use on bird houses. After I sprayed I never had anything use the houses, not even a sparrow. I am wondering if anyone else had this experience?”
A: We have not had any other reports of anyone using the product Fly Bomb. It could merely be a coincidence that the boxes were not used again that season. “Mite & Lice Bird and Cage Spray” has been used effectively by many BAN members with no reported ill effects. It is available at Earl May Garden Centers and can be used on ants as well as mites. Gently lift up the nest and apply one or two sprays below the nest. Any spray used in a bird box should be used only when necessary and in moderation.
Originally printed in Bluebirds Across Nebraska Newsletter Volume 11 Number 4 Winter 2004-05