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Did you know bluebirds are often associated with harmony, honesty, and joy? The Native Americans describe these birds as mentors in their legendary stories, and apparently, only their heroes were allowed to narrate such stories. So whenever you see those striking azure colors flying up in the sky, just know those birds are highly regarded in some cultures.
Today, we’ll be looking at the different bluebird species found in the US. We, however, feel obligated to tell you that this list might not include some species, as they’ve not been seen for years after they migrated. The cause of that migration was loss of habitat, something that we found to be disheartening, considering it was preventable. But, you know, it is what it is.
The Eastern Bluebird is a very common bird in North America, but not the only common blue bird. As a birder, you have to understand that difference. Try to learn about their distinguishable features, or you’ll end up confusing it with a different species—Like the Western or Mountain bluebird, for Example.
What makes this species distinct from other species?
We’ll first have to look at its bill. They are all dark, pointed, thin, and usually have a paler gape. And this applies to both the juveniles and the adult bird. With regard to their general shape, it can best be described as classic passerine, but with a round head and upright posture.
Distinguishing the male from female is also easy. The tail, back, wings and the head of the male bird will be all blue. But if you pay close attention to the chest, chin, flanks, and the throat, you’ll notice a rusty red shading.
Now, to tell whether it’s female, you’ll just have to compare it with the other male birds around it. If it looks a lot pale, dusty, and duller, that’s a female Eastern Bluebird.
The Eastern Bluebird is not the type of bird that hangs out on its own. They love to migrate in pairs or small flocks. And during winter, you’ll see them all band together next to a food source.
Catching sight of them is quite easy, as they love to perch on shrubs or low tree branches when scanning for insects crawling or flying close to the ground.
Speaking of insects, it’s important to note that the Eastern Bluebird is mainly insectivorous. The main diet of an insectivorous bird comprises insects, worms, and several other invertebrates. But that’s mostly during spring and summer. In winter or autumn—a time when catching insects is difficult due to their scarce numbers—they survive on berries and fruits. You’ll only get to see them feed on lizards or other small amphibians on a bad day.
The Eastern Bluebirds are monogamous in nature. They’ll only find new partners if the current partner goes MIA without notice. This could happen if a hunter spotted one and decided to use it for target practice—Sad—or if a predator got lucky.
Also, they are cavity-nesting birds. And the nesting material will include small twigs, a small quantity of grass, and some pine needles.
It’s true the bird isn’t endangered or anything. But what they forgot to tell you is, their population has been on a steady decline over the years. This is primarily because most of their nesting sites are always destroyed or taken over by other birds, which are more aggressive in nature. Aggressive in the sense that they’re ready to kill the bluebird together with its younglings, should they try to resist.
Can you do something about it? Yes, you can. Build birdhouses with small entrance holes. Large enough to make it easy for the bluebird to gain access, but small enough to bar all other unwanted guests trying to mess around with them.
You could also petition the government to bar the use of pesticides with harmful chemical substances. The kind that end up killing these beautiful species, or compromising their avian immune system.
Compared to the Mountain Bluebird and the Eastern Bluebird, you’ll rarely find them in large meadows. They prefer living in open woodlands, or areas where the soil, vegetation, and/or hydrology have been altered to a significant degree. We’re talking about areas such as logged areas and burned forests.
The Western Bluebird loves to perch on signs and fence posts. Okay, let’s just rephrase that: they’ll perch on anything that’s close to the ground. Close enough to see what’s going on down there, but high enough to not spook the prey.
They’ll scan the entire area for a while, and fly away if they don’t spot any insect in the vicinity. But if they do, you’ll see them dive down abruptly, and seize it using their feet. Of course, the leg features aren’t as adapted and strong compared to those of the raptor, but they are just as effective.
If you wanted to, you could have the Western Bluebird for a pet. They are very easy to attract, as they love feeding on mealworms. And yes, you were right to presume they are insectivorous in nature, because they are. Apart from the mealworm, they love eating snails, beetles, grasshoppers, wasps, and even marine invertebrates.
But that’s mostly true during summer. During winter, when food is scarce, they’ll switch to seeds and fruits. That’s the only time of year that you get to see them devour juniper, raspberries, sumac, elderberry, and poison oak.
The Western Bluebird is a cavity nester. And when it’s time to breed, you’ll see both the male and female scout different cavities, trying to look for a suitable one. The trees used include the cottonwood, oak, willow, pine, and sycamore. Sometimes they’ll nest in swallows’ mud nests or inside a building.
Up until 2015, there was no concern raised with regard to the Western Bluebird population. Things changed when a survey found out that logging, grazing, and the growth of forests contributed to their habitat loss. The practice of removing dead trees was also listed as a reason for this loss of habitat.
But all things considered, the Western Bluebird is not listed anywhere as an endangered species.
It’s easy to confuse the bunting for the bluebird at first glance because they kind of look similar. If you’re inexperienced, but trying to figure out which is which, just focus on the size and build. Bluebirds are significantly larger, and have a broader build compared to buntings. They also lack the wing bars, a feature that’s often associated with the bunting.
Some of the other key features to look for include its conically shaped beak, and the unusually long tail. We often find that tail length unusually long because if you compare it to the overall size of the bird, it looks exaggerated.
The male and female buntings are also different. The back of the male bird will have a brown wash, while the rest of the upper areas will be turquoise. Their lores are always black, and kind of gives off this mask-like effect. The under tail and abdomen will be white, but the breast is always a rich rufous.
Females also have white underparts, but their breasts and heads are tan and sometimes grey-brown. Their shoulders are always blue, but we noticed some females have large amounts of that shade, while others have minimal.
To claim its territory, the male will sing for hours on end. This always happens during spring or breeding season, when they’re trying to pick a suitable site for nesting. It’s the only time you’ll ever see them in pairs, and once the breeding season passes, they’ll form flocks with other bunting species, finches, and sparrows.
How can we describe their flight pattern, you ask? We would describe it as undulating, but with some short glides. Also, we were keen to notice they loved holding their wings close to their bodies.
Have you ever heard of the word ‘granivorous’ before? It’s the word that ornithologists use to describe birds that prefer diets that primarily consist of grains and seeds. The lazuli bunting is granivorous.
But not exclusively granivorous, as you’ll note they also feed on fruits during fall and summer. Some have referred to them as insectivorous, since they get some of their proteins from insects as well. Their bills are strong enough to crack anything that they’re interested in having, and once they’re done, you’ll see them wipe it off on branches, so as to remove the debris.
The male lazuli bunting can be extra, when it’s trying to court the female. The first try will be showing off its plumage. If that doesn’t work, they’ll move on to option B, which is to throw out their chest. And if that still doesn’t work, they’ll resort to their last option, which is typical for birds of their kind—fluttering wings.
After mating, the female will look for a crook in a tree branch, and start building a nest. That nest has to be at least 2 feet above ground, and constructed using spider silk, weeds, and fur.
The lazuli bunting’s reproduction success has been adversely affected by the loss of habitat. And even though they’ve never been listed as endangered or threatened, if we keep turning a blind eye to what’s happening around us, we’ll certainly lose them all to extinction.
What are some of the field marks that would help you identify the Mountain Bluebird? Well, first off, before we get to that, you should know these birds can sing. And we bet you, Simon Cowell will concur with us on this one.
Now, that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the markers. Their plumage is typically bright blue, but due to the wear and tear effects, they’ll sometimes look uneven. You’ll have to be an experienced birder to tell the difference because it’s not a walk in the park.
Compared to the female, the males are normally brighter. Some ornithologists are of the opinion that it makes courting easier, so who are we to argue with that. If you take a look at their underparts, you’ll learn that the lower areas of the tail and abdomen are often whitish or grey-blue. You’ll also be able to note a faint mask-like appearance created by the grey wash around its eyes.
Once you’re done identifying the males, identifying the females will be a breeze. The blue on their tails and wings are brighter than the rest of their bodies, and their underparts whitish-grey.
Their feet and bills have similar features to those of their male counterparts, and the bills are black in color, very pointed, and thin. Move down to the feet and legs, and you’ll realize they are all black.
Interested in going out there and learning all there is to know about the Mountain Bluebird? You’ll have to go to Alaska, in the mountainous regions that are greater than 7000 feet.
Or did you think that Mountain in its name was just a moniker? Think again, pal. It’s there to remind you of the type of habitat they prefer living in.
A Mountain Bluebird can survive alone. They don’t usually need companionship, but if the offer is on the table, they won’t hesitate to take it. The only time you’ll see them in pairs or small groups is during breeding season.
Just like their Eastern brethrens, Mountain Bluebirds are in love with insects. And they’re not picky at all when it comes to what type of insects they feed on. As long as it’s an invertebrate, and classified as an insect, they’ll eat it. Whether it’s crawling or flying, they don’t really care.
During winter and fall, food is normally scarce. We know this, and so do the animals. It’s not an unusual phenomenon in the animal kingdom, and that’s why they’ll go for the alternative, which includes berries and fruits.
We’re pretty sure you’ll be entertained by how the Mountain Bluebird hunts its prey because it’s exciting to watch. They first hover around, so as to try to convince the prey that they’re just going about their business. The minute the prey let’s its guard down, they’ll pounce from above and kill it before carrying it back to their feeding station.
And this is how we know they can be aggressive. While killing the prey, they’ll continuously hit it on a branch or hard surface just to dismember it. Pretty graphic if you ask us.
The Mountain bluebird can nest in a birdhouse, or in a decent-looking cavity. They are primary cavity nesters, and it’s the male’s responsibility to scout possible sites. However, the female will have the last say on where the site needs to be, and what materials are to be used during construction.
Mountain Bluebirds are not endangered, but they face the same problems faced by different Bluebird species out there—the destruction of nesting sites, and the use of hazardous pesticides. So once again, we beseech you to help us save these beautiful creatures.
And just like that, we’ve gotten to the end of today’s piece. You can always reach out to us if you have any questions or suggestions that you’d like to make. Just remember, by conserving our wildlife, we’ll be ensuring our kids and our kids’ kids get to enjoy these incredible species and the natural world.
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Featured Image Credit: Jesse Nguyen, Shutterstock
Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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