Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann

Whereiwander… now that most of the snow has melted in our meadow, I will clean out the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialia) houses. They are still filled with last year’s nesting materials. I don’t clean them out until I am reasonably sure that we won’t be getting any more snow. If we happen to get another cold spell and more snow the nesting materials will help to keep the returning birds warm. Some of the nesting materials that they prefer are grasses, pine needles, plant stems, hair, and feathers. A few years ago, we had a prolonged frigid spell of minus twenty degrees. It lasted fifteen days and killed numerous early-arriving migratory warblers and other small birds that were unable to find suitable nesting cavities. I have learned that the bluebirds and also flying squirrels are known as huddlers; which means that as many as ten bluebirds may huddle together in a nesting box or cavity to keep warm. The flying squirrels will huddle together in a cavity or hollow log, and as many as two dozen squirrels may be huddled together.

I have appreciated finding and hearing eastern bluebirds since I was a child. This sweet small bird is our New York State Bird, but it was in danger of becoming a rare find because of the lack of its habitat. Bluebirds are strictly cavity nesters, and in the late nineteen hundreds, hundreds of nesting houses that were used exclusively by bluebirds were unavailable because of the competition for the houses by the introduction to New York State of both House sparrows and European Starlings. The House sparrow is very aggressive, and the European Starlings are much larger, and they usually become the occupiers of “bluebird houses.”

Today, when traveling on country roads with nearby farmlands, you may see bluebird nesting houses on fences. The houses are placed strategically between five to fifteen feet apart. This allows one box for the bluebirds and another for another cavity nesting bird. Tree Swallows, Chickadees and House Wrens are some of the other species of birds which I have encounter using the nesting house in our meadow.

Bluebirds are unable to create their own nesting cavities in trees, which they may also use as a nesting site. Instead, they will use available woodpecker-made cavities in trees, especially if it is close to a sufficient food source. Both our three-and-a-half acre meadow and the nearby ponds provide the type of food that fills the bluebird’s needs. Our meadow is overflowing with a multitude of wildflowers and low shrubs that attract an abundance of different insects. The insects include flies, bugs, beetles, grasshoppers, numerous species of caterpillars, and dragonflies, in addition to spiders. The meadow also contains numerous fruits, such as wild strawberries and raspberries. Next to the meadow is a stand of Staghorn Sumac, which has berries that the bluebirds also include in their diet.

If you have been fortunate to have a pair of bluebird nests in one of your nesting houses, you might or may not have the same birds return for consecutive years. If they have had a successful past season, they will probably return to nest again. Year-old bluebirds will quite often return to the area where they were raised. After mating, the female bluebird will lay four to five pale blue eggs, and the incubation is generally twelve to fourteen days as only the female incubates and the male brings her food. The nestlings are altricial, which means that the nestlings are motionless, have no downy feathers, their eyes are closed, and they are fed by their parents. The nestling will fledge (leave the nest) in fifteen to twenty days. Bluebirds are known to have up to three broods in a single season, depending on weather conditions, parasites, and predators.

In late summer, pairs of bluebirds with their young from this year’s broods will gather together while they feed. They may also join the extensive family of other bluebird families to create a larger flock with as many as 20 plus birds and begin their southern migration together. Occasionally, over the past twenty-plus years, we have experienced several bluebirds wintering over in our bluebird houses. They will huddle together in one house. When this occurs, I can generally see them all arriving at dusk and all enter the same house. The house has an entrance hole that is one and a half inches in diameter. It is big enough for the bluebirds to enter, but a larger bird, such as the European Starling, cannot.

A few more interesting facts about bluebirds are they will sit high in a tree and survey the ground from this perch. Once they have spotted their prey, they swoop down and grab it. This is called “drop feeding”. Also, both the male and female bluebirds sing, which is rather unusual. Bluebirds are able to perch even when sleeping because of their uniquely formed feet. They have a backward-pointing hind toe that will grasp the perch if they sway backward. Another interesting fact is if a female bluebird is unable to find a vacant nest box or tree cavity, she will lay her eggs in another female’s nest. The female will leave her nest when she needs to defecate and will not soil her nest. While she is momentarily gone then another female would have access to the empty nest to quickly lay her eggs.

I hope that you found these precious bluebirds as fascinating as I do and that you will encounter some as you wander, too.


Joan Herrmann has taught and done programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers for about 38 years as a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist, and Outdoor Educator. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995, she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature, and became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, New York, she has been educating children and adults for nineteen years.

In 2007, she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP). In 2013 and 2014, she did a week-long summer program at BROEP with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC).

Using her love of nature and photography, she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.

Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in cataloging all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.

Since October 2016, she has written a bi-monthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with the My Little Falls newspaper. You may reach her at jmhphoto8442@gmail.com.