We knew our bluebird boxes had just been vacated, but we hadn’t seen any babies until late last week when I finally spied one.
A gorgeous blue male with an orange breast snatched an insect from the grass and flew to a branch on a cedar, where a baby was patiently waiting.
Even after they leave their nests, fledglings are often fed by their parents for a few days until they can fend for themselves.
A baby bluebird is largely a collection of fluffy, mottled gray feathers with only traces of the blue to come.
This year Michael and I put up seven bluebird boxes along our road in late February and early March, with permission from two neighbors, to make a half-mile bluebird trail.
We placed them on poles with predator guards, a must to prevent losing broods to snakes, raccoons, cats and other predators. Michael made them using stovepipe and wire mesh, thanks to a YouTube video.
It wasn’t long before the boxes attracted attention. We ended up with five boxes occupied by bluebirds and one by chickadees. One remains vacant, but we suspect that might change.
Bluebirds can have two to four broods in one season.
To start the process, a male bluebird will get some nesting material and flutter in front of a box to attract a mate, but once he has won her affection, he leaves the heavy lifting to her.
The mother builds the nest alone. Males.
A bluebird will lay one egg a day and once she is finished, she starts sitting on them to begin the incubation process.
Bluebirds generally lay between three and seven eggs. All our boxes had four to five.
Incubation lasts between 13 and 17 days and young chicks leave the nest 15 to 20 days after hatching.
That means a lot of trips to the box by both parents, when males step up to feed their brood.
Almost all baby birds need soft, squishy caterpillars that are easily digested. And they need a lot of them.
Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware, found that to raise one brood of chickadees, for example, requires 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars!
That’s why native plants are crucial for birds. Insects are found in abundance on native plants and hardly at all on non-natives.
Bluebirds are master insect hunters. They can often be spotted perched high on a limb or a wire, staring down at the ground.
These thrushes can spot an insect from as high as 60 feet up in the air, though I usually see them much closer.
While bluebirds primarily consume insects in spring and summer, they happily move to berries in fall and winter.
Bluebirds were in serious decline in the 1960s from habitat loss, competition with house sparrows and starlings, severe weather and pesticide use.
The populations increased between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, thanks largely to the effort to provide nesting boxes.
Having cleaned out our boxes, we are looking forward to round two.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at email@example.com.