I wrote a column in early spring of 2015 about an “attractive young couple” that were looking for housing in our neighborhood. They were, in actuality, a pair of bluebirds. There are three bluebird houses and several wren houses close by. They looked over all the bluebird boxes and even checked out one of the wren boxes that was obviously way too small for them. They seemed unsure, though, as many young couples are. They’d appear very interested in a nest box for a day or two, and then would disappear for a few days. They’d return and show interest in another box. This went on for weeks, but no nest appeared until late June. That, happily, was in the box in our backyard; not much more than 25 feet from our living and dining room windows. They succeeded in raising a family, but had difficulties with neighboring wrens and house sparrows that also wanted to use that box. I kept a second box west of our house cleaned out just in case they decided to try a second nest, as they often do once the summer’s first family is safely able to care for themselves. With the late start, they had only one nest that year. Interestingly, the whole family returned later in the fall to visit their old nest box, and spent several days around the yard.
A male bluebird appeared in the yard early in the spring of 2016 and was soon joined by a female. They seemed attached to that backyard nest box right away, and showed little interest in the other boxes nearby. Weeks went by again with no nest. 2016’s pair stayed around and didn’t disappear for days as the 2015 pair had. They finally nested in mid June. What a joy it was to watch the young ones leave the nest one July morning. I hoped they’d attempt a second nest, but, again, they left a few days later. They again returned to visit for a few days in the fall and still had a couple of their young ones with them.
A pair of bluebirds showed up in March this year and there was no question which box they wanted. There was a sense of familiarity as they excitedly examined the old backyard nest box on that first day. They visited the box daily, and even used the same favorite perching spots as the past year’s birds. It seemed like they were the same birds as the years’ before. The male, now nearing four years old if he truly is the same bird, behaved with the assurance and boldness of maturity. House sparrows showed interest in the still empty nest box, but this year’s male bluebird promptly tore into them and drove them off repeatedly. Wrens returned to the yard in early May, and as is their habit, the male wren tried to fill every nest cavity in his territory with twigs. Daddy bluebird wouldn’t tolerate that, either, and the usually persistent wren gave up on the bluebird’s box after only a few days of being chased. I worried that they still might leave because new houses were being built on what had been undeveloped land just across the backyard fence. The bluebirds stayed in spite of of all the racket and the loss of bug-hunting habitat. They built their nest in mid May, and hatched three little ones a few days ago.
Bluebirds stay together as a family all through the summer and fall. It isn’t unusual to see young ones from a season’s first nest helping to feed younger brothers and sisters from a second nest. Males, in particular, are known to bond to a nesting territory if they’ve been successful raising young there. I watched a “touching moment” as we ate our breakfast on a recent morning. The bluebirds had been busy feeding their little ones since sunrise, but perched briefly on our deck with their shoulders touching. It looked very much like a reassuring bluebird hug in the midst of that busy morning. I may be attributing more to what those birds are doing than there is, but I sense that this year’s bluebirds are so familiar with our yard that they’ve even become more tolerant of us. I had been mowing yesterday afternoon and Sue joined me for a break in the shade of our backyard ash tree. We were soon joined by the bluebirds as they took a break on favorite perches not 15 feet from us. They had been very busy feeding young all day. I’ll clean out the box the same day the young leave it and keep the other nest box cleaned out just in case they decide to try a second nest this year. There’s still plenty of time. I can’t prove it, but I like to think that these are the same birds as that “attractive young couple” that moved into the back yard nest box in 2015. I hope they stay, because they are delightful neighbors.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.