Patty enjoys nature and has been working to build a backyard habitat for bird species, including eastern bluebirds.
Backyard Living in the Middle of a Pandemic
When we mounted a bluebird box on our backyard fence in 2019, we did it because it seemed like an interesting project. Little did we know that 2020 would keep us all at home, isolated with the experiences that we created in our backyard. What it became in our daily lives was a lesson in the nature of life.
Handmade Bluebird Box
In fall 2019, while we were wandering through an outdoor living store, my attention was drawn to some bluebird boxes the store owner had built.
I bought one, thinking back to the half-dozen nailed to the sides of the barns and buildings on our farm back in Pennsylvania. Although it wasn't a farm, my house in southern Virginia had a spacious backyard, and I was confident there was ample room for one bluebird box.
Did You Know?
Bluebirds look for open areas with few trees to build their nests so they can watch for predators.
We nailed the box on the high wooden fence surrounding our yard. I imagined a bluebird sitting on the top of the box looking all around. I was pleased with this location because the birds would have a clear 360 view from here, which would protect them from predators.
A small plum tree and the garage roof would work as important vantage points where they could view their nest box.
Some of the Things That Bluebirds Need
Open area without trees
Suet and fruit in winter
Post, fence, rooftop to perch
Windows covered to prevent glass collisions
Bluebird box or natural cavities in dead trees or fences
Insects in warm months
Protection from roaming cats
Waiting for Our First Pair of Bluebirds
We put the box on the fence in late summer, thinking a pair of bluebirds would move in right away. But end-of-summer temperatures in southern Virginia can be so hot that the tiny hatchlings probably wouldn't survive the heat inside the box.
It wasn't until the following March that a pair of eastern bluebirds showed interest in the rectangular box. One morning around the middle of the month, Rob was standing at the kitchen window sipping on a morning coffee when a flicker of blue along the fence caught his attention. He looked closely and thought he saw two bluebirds perched on the fence near the box. He pulled out his phone and started taking pictures. I was at work, and my day suddenly exploded with a stream of texts and photos. But they were too blurry for me to tell what species of birds were taking up residence in the box. Since Rob was working from home through the pandemic, I relied on his painted word pictures for the minute-by-minute account of what unfolded in front of him, and I was as excited as he was.
He described how the birds fluttered around the hole of the box for a while and then flew back to the fence. One of the pair, possibly the female because its color was more faded than its partner, poked its head into the hole, then flew back to the fence, sat there for several minutes, then flew back to the box and disappeared inside.
Moments later, the birds flew away.
It was three days before they returned. This time the pair of birds made countless trips into the box through the entrance hole. Rob again kept me up to date on the progress he witnessed. Both birds worked to drag long eastern white pine needles inside, sometimes tugging three or four times until the long brown needles that appeared longer than the birds disappeared completely inside the box.
We were dying to see the progress inside the box but were afraid to disturb the work.
Monitoring the Box
As novice bird nestbox providers, we weren't sure if we should disturb the bluebirds. But I read somewhere that good landlords check on their birds regularly, and the birds don't mind at all. We waited until the evening when the activity around the box had died down, pulled the clamp from the up-swinging door, and carefully peeked inside.
Construction was well underway; the half-built nest was neatly woven together into a cup shape. The top of the nest was still about three inches below the entrance hole, so I suspected that there was more work to do. We closed the door and waited. For two more days, the bluebirds worked endlessly. On the fourth morning, the activity stopped, and the bluebirds were gone.
The First Egg
It was three days before the pair returned. The more brilliantly colored of the two, I assumed the male, sat perched on the fence while his partner disappeared inside the box.
Because we weren't recording the activity around the box, we really didn't know how long she stayed inside, but the behavior made us suspect that she was laying her eggs. We checked the box that evening, taking our stepstool and flashlight to the fence where we found one tiny blue egg in the carefully woven nest. Over the next few days, she laid two more.
Like two eager grandparents, we waited anxiously for the eggs to hatch, keeping our watch for anything that might spell danger to our young family of birds.
House sparrows and snakes are predators that can eat the eggs or kill young fledglings. The young parents guarded their nest closely, always watchful. The bluebirds mobbed more than one stray cardinal who thought it was okay to perch on the fence near the box.
The eggs hatched around the 19th day of incubation. Suddenly, the habits of the birds changed. All of a sudden, there was a heightened flurry of activity. The adult birds busily flew back and forth almost non-stop, carrying insects in their beaks, and we knew they were now feeding hungry little mouths.
As they grew inside their nest, we were careful not to startle the young fledglings. Once their wings began to develop, we held back from opening the nest box door, afraid that we would startle the little ones enough that they would try to leave the nest. I had read some stories of babies trying to fly early, and the outcome wasn't a good one.
So we waited. The day they would leave the nest was approaching, and we waited to watch the show when Mama or Papa gave the babies their first flight instruction.
But one morning, about 20 days after the eggs hatched, the activity around the box stopped. That evening we opened the box. It was empty.
The bluebirds were gone, and all that was left was a single unhatched egg. Two babies had hatched, not three. Apparently, the young birds got their first flight lesson very early in the morning, probably before our alarm went off. And their lesson would have happened quickly. I read that their first flight lesson from the box would have been to a nearby tree about twenty feet away. And from there, they would never return to the box.
Returning to the Box
Once we realized the truth, that the birds would not be back, we cleaned the nest box and waited. Maybe another family of bluebirds would take the nest? We hoped so.
In June, they came back. This time, though, there were four birds. The adults and the two younger birds worked as a team to build a new nest and care for the fledglings when they hatched.
And just like the first time, we missed their first flight. Long before our alarm went off, the four new fledglings left the nest.
What We Learned From the Bluebirds
Nature is so full of lessons in relationships, community, and the fulfillment of life. From our experience with the bluebird nestbox, we learned that a lot in life is instinct. Most species instinctively plan for offspring. The desire to procreate, give birth, nurture, and protect is something that is instilled in us. To me, that is heartening. The world is not all bad, and our instinct is to carry on despite the predators around us. Our instinctual needs carry us on, recreating life over and over again. It gives us purpose and makes life meaningful.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 11, 2020:
This sounds like a very interesting experience. I would love to have bluebirds nesting in my garden. Thanks for sharing the information about the birds that used your nest box.