The Beloved, Brilliant American Bluebird

The North American bluebird has made a comeback that’s as remarkable as its striking hue. Learn more about bluebirds and how you can support these true blue beauties.

| August/September 2010

Everybody loves a bluebird. No other bird is featured more often in our prose, poetry, and song. The bluebird is the cheery little guy on your shoulder as you sing zip-a-dee-doo-dah. Bluebirds fly somewhere over the rainbow. “The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. But there is substance, not just lyrical literature, behind our fondness for bluebirds. They have earned their place in our hearts.

Bluebirds occur only in North America. European settlers called them “blue robins,” because the birds’ size and rusty breast reminded them of English robins. Comparatively scarce in pre-colonial days, the American bluebird thrived as pioneers cleared forests and plowed fields, creating the open, woodland-edged habitat they favor. Orchards and field crops served up concentrations of tasty insects. Bluebirds nest in tree cavities, and farmers furnished housing by surrounding their fields with cavity-prone wood fence posts. At the turn of the 20th century, bluebirds were common in much of rural America, and even nested in urban residential areas.

The story changed soon after, however, when bluebirds were hit with a double whammy: House sparrows and starlings — aggressive European imports whose populations had burgeoned since their arrival on our shores — robbed bluebirds of their traditional nest sites, destroyed eggs and killed fledglings. At the same time, modern orchard pruning practices, routine removal of dead trees, and replacement of wood fence posts with metal drastically diminished the number of nesting cavities available to bluebirds. The use of DDT and other pesticides also harmed bluebirds. Their numbers nose-dived. “During the past 40 years,” wrote bluebird expert Lawrence Zeleny in the June 1977 National Geographic, “the population of the eastern bluebird may have plummeted by as much as 90 percent.” The birds, Zeleny said, had become “so scarce that most people under 30 have never seen one.” Extinction, he wrote, was “a real possibility.”

Zeleny’s alarming article, as well as his 1976 book pointedly titled The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight for Survival, were wake-up calls to the public, and a movement was born. In 1978, Zeleny founded the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) to provide information on building and siting nest boxes, dealing with competing species, and nurturing bluebirds and other cavity-nesters. To this day, NABS and many similar state organizations continue to help people in the United States and Canada help bluebirds. Thanks to the organization’s advice and the efforts of countless people, bluebird populations are bouncing back in most areas.

The Blues Trio

Three bluebird species live in North America: the eastern (Sialia sialis), the western (Sialia mexicana) and the mountain (Sialia currucoides). At least one kind graces every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Newfoundland. The birds’ names pretty much tell you where they live. The eastern bluebird occupies the eastern two-thirds of the United States (except for extreme southern Florida) and southern Canada. The western bluebird’s range picks up where the eastern bluebird’s leaves off and extends westward to the Pacific Coast and south into Mexico. The two overlap in southern Arizona and, in winter, the Great Plains and west Texas, where they sometimes seasonally mingle.

The mountain bluebird shares much of the western bluebird’s summer range, but occupies high, open habitat — mountain meadows, high hills, and plains — while the western avoids exposed meadows and prefers open woods and forest edges at lower elevations. The mountain bluebird’s nesting range also extends farther north, through much of the western third of Canada (where it shares territory with the eastern bluebird) and north through inland Alaska.

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