I heard the song “Bluebird” by Paul McCartney and Wings the other day and since then I can’t stop thinking about the beautiful blues of our blue birds.
In Texas we have three species of blue birds, not to be confused with other blue bird species like blue jays.
During the breeding season, eastern bluebirds occupy much of the state. Western bluebirds breed only in the far western part of the state. During the winter, western bluebirds move around quite a bit and can be found in a larger area, but still mostly in the western part of the state. Both species are very pretty birds with a blue and red head, back, wings and tail on the chest, but western bluebirds also have some of this red color on their upper back, c This is how you can tell the two apart. Males are a brighter blue than females, so they can attract a mate. Both nest in cavities and easily grab boxes. You can often see these two species of blue birds perched on power lines or fences as they hunt their main food, insects. They also eat berries from fruit trees and shrubs.
So it’s two species, but which is the third? The breathtakingly beautiful mountain bluebird fills the slate. They are a magnificent blue without reddish like the other two species. Males are sky blue on the back and a bit paler below and females are predominantly gray with blue reflections in the wings and tail. During the winter, mountain bluebirds congregate in wandering groups that search for food mainly in the fruiting junipers. They don’t occur in Texas every winter, so you have to wait for what is called an outbreak year (when species burst south) to see them here. They often forage on the ground in fields with short vegetation and the contrast between the blue of the birds and the green of the vegetation can be striking.
Unlike the other two species, mountain bluebirds often soar when hunting insects. They breed in the western United States at mid and high elevations in open habitats with a few trees to provide cavities. They will also settle easily in nesting boxes like the other two species of blue birds.
In all three species of blue birds, the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. All bluebirds face competition from swallows, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wren and starlings for nesting cavities, so providing them with nesting boxes is very valuable.
We have blue bird nesting boxes at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and have at least one pair of eastern blue birds and maybe more nesting here every spring. They raise two or three broods per year and are therefore quite productive. If you want to see them in action, come in the spring when they build their nests, incubate their eggs, and feed their young. You can see the adults entering and leaving the nesting boxes and following their progress until the babies take flight. It’s a very exciting thing.
Susan Heath is Director of Conservation Research at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. GCBO is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond on their wintering grounds in Central and South America.