A Western Bluebird Season in Flagstaff, Arizona
Joy, Sorrow & Mystery
By Harold & Paula Ables
Having a family of Western
Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) in your backyard makes for an exciting season, and
that’s how our season began in the spring of 2007.
A pair of Western Bluebirds
returned for the second year to a nest box in our backyard on the southwest
edge of Flagstaff, Arizona, at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The female inspected the nest box while the
male checked out the bird bath.
The couple immediately set up housekeeping with mom tending
the eggs and dad delivering tasty snacks – caterpillars, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies and assorted other delicacies.
female was incubating the eggs, we uncovered some earthworms in our iris garden
and decided to offer a little feeding assistance by draping an earthworm over
the entrance to the nest box. The
earthworm just sat there for a few seconds, then jiggled momentarily and
rapidly disappeared into the nest box. We thought we were doing a good deed and tried this a second time a few
hours later. The results were quite
different this time. As soon as we moved
away from the nest box, the male flew down, snatched the earthworm and
literally slung it over a nearby fence. We didn’t try that anymore and have since learned that earthworms are
not good for Western Bluebirds and may cause severe diarrhea in the parent
bird. The male clearly knew his
Occasionally, the female would leave the nest
and this afforded us the opportunity to lift the side of the box and inspect
the nest. We did this the second week of May and found four beautiful blue eggs
in a somewhat disheveled nest.
The wood shavings at the bottom were put in by us as a starter.
the end of May both parents were very busy delivering food to the chicks and,
during one of the feeding intervals, we discovered that only three of the eggs
had hatched. Three very hungry chicks
with very large mouths greeted our opening the side of the nest box.
The meals on wings activity by both parents was intense during the daylight hours for the
next 17 or 18 days.
Surprisingly, the parents paid no attention to the roasted
caterpillars we purchased for them. They
only began eating them, and then only sparingly, after the chicks had fledged.
parents, especially the male, guarded the nest box from a nearby Arizona Ash
Woe betide any other critter, from
Pygmy Nuthatch to Northern Flicker and especially Ebert Squirrel, if it
approached the vicinity of the nest box. The poor Ebert Squirrels probably needed psychological counseling by the
end of the summer. The parents would
frequently chase them all the way up one tall Ponderosa pine tree and down
another, pecking at them all the way. Even when the squirrels learned to avoid the nest box, they were still
harassed unmercifully at times.
we observed a parent departing the nest box with something in its beak. We managed to image one such departure and,
as the image below shows, the female was nest cleaning - removing fecal
By the end
of the second week of June, the three chicks were overflowing the nest and
beginning to show signs of wanting to leave those close quarters. Early in the morning of June 13 at about
6:30, we observed the male parent apparently encouraging, what turned out to
be, the last chick to leave the nest.
A few moments later the chick ventured a little farther out
of the nest box and shortly after the following image was taken, it flew with a
great deal of confidence to the limb of a nearby pine tree.
After waiting several minutes without seeing any activity at
the nest box, we checked the nest and found it empty except for the infertile egg. Three of the four eggs had hatched into three,
two male and one female, healthy chicks. We removed the old nesting materials, cleaned the nest box, put in some
more wood shavings and hoped the parents would start another brood.
begging the parents for food, the three chicks began exploring the backyard. The next image shows one of the male chicks
on top of a platform feeder. The parents
continued to feed them for several days but by June 20 the female was starting
to incubate eggs for another brood. Dad
then had the sole responsibility for feeding the chicks and for feeding mom on
Although the young birds could clearly feed themselves by
the last week of June, they missed no opportunity to beg dad for food. He was a busy guy feeding the chicks, feeding
his mate and guarding the nest box.
birds quickly learned to eat suet and the bird bath was a favorite attraction.
Bathing was obviously a favorite pastime. First, you test the bath water with a foot
then you dive in.
Splashing around is great fun
and is sometime a spectator sport.
Bluebird chicks were joined in our backyard by a few other youngsters during
the summer. There was the Steller’s Jay chick that looked like “this was not what it
signed up for,”
but later seemed happier when being
fed by a parent on our deck table.
Four American Robin chicks were around for a few weeks, one
of which is about to be fed an insect in the next image.
A juvenile Hairy Woodpecker frequently visited the suet
A juvenile Red-shafted Northern Flicker visited our feeders
with its parent.
And finally a juvenile Red-backed Junco enjoyed our seed for
a few weeks.
four eggs again in the second nest and we were eagerly looking forward to the
interaction of the two broods of chicks. All four eggs hatched this time and we were able to photograph the newly
hatched chicks on July 9.
a repeat of the parents feeding the chicks and chasing intruders or, in some
cases, innocent passers-by from the vicinity of the nest box. At 10:30 am on July 26 we took a picture of
the four almost fully grown chicks in the nest.
We were hoping to be able to photograph them leaving the
nest, perhaps the next day.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. July 27 was a sad day for us and the Western
Bluebird parents. When we ventured
outside at 8:00 am, fully expecting to see chicks ready to leave the nest, we found a
few feathers scattered underneath the nest box and both parents in a nearby
tree mournfully calling to their chicks.
Each had an insect in its beak and they kept flying to the
nest box in search of the chicks. They
both continued calling and searching the yard for a couple of hours. It was heartbreaking to see them in such
anguish and we didn’t feel much better. After a while they ate the insects they had brought for the chicks and
then flew away from our yard.
happened to the four chicks is a mystery to us. They had to have been taken sometime during the night or the very early
morning hours. There were no marks on
the tree or the nest box and the nest did not appear to have been
disturbed. The only remains of the four
beautiful chicks were the few feathers on the ground directly beneath the nest
box. What could have taken the chicks? We have not seen a snake in our yard for more
than 25 years and have never seen a raccoon in our neighborhood. Occasionally, a neighbor’s cat will venture
into the yard but we have never seen it harm a bird.
returned infrequently during the remainder of the summer and departed for the
season in early September. The three
juveniles, however, spent most of their time as our guests through
October. At the end of October, while we
were raking the yard, all three flew to a tree quite close to us, watched us
for several minutes and then, as if bidding us goodbye, flew away for what we
assumed would be their journey south to warmer climes.
MORE JOY & ANOTHER MYSTERY
our surprise, the three juvenile Western Bluebirds returned to our suet feeders
in the early morning of December 22. It
was a cold morning with a temperature of 18°F during their short visit from
7:30 to 8:00 am. They made a repeat
visit the next morning about the same time. Their bright blue feathers practically glowed in the early morning
light. The white streaks on their breasts
had almost disappeared and the males had lost their white eye rings.
We did not see them again until the early
mornings of January 9 & 10 when there was 18 inches of snow on the ground
and the temperature hovered around 10°F. They appeared to be healthy and each gobbled up a lot of Peanut Delight
suet before departing for parts unknown.
returned during the cold winter is another mystery to us. From what we have read, the Western Bluebirds
in an area get together in the early fall and migrate as a group to warmer
climates south of us. Since we have seen
no other Western Bluebirds in our neighborhood, it is not clear to us that our
birds had a group to migrate with. Could
it be that the parents were so distraught by the loss of their second brood
that they headed south without instructing their first brood in the art of
migration? We continue to keep an eye
out for the juveniles, but it is now the end of January and they have not
for the coming spring is to install a Noel Predator Guard on the nest box. Hopefully, this will protect the chicks until
they fledge and, thereby, prevent the reoccurrence of last season’s
tragedy. Our hope is that the family
will return to nest this spring and make our backyard home to multiple broods
of beautiful Western Bluebird chicks throughout the 2008 season.
The Western Bluebirds returned
in the spring of 2008 and began preparing their nest in the nest box (without
the Noel Predator Guard installed) in mid April. The picture below was taken while the couple
was putting the finishing touches on their nest on 19 April 2009 some 12 days
before the first of 5 eggs was laid.
after the 5 chicks hatched, we installed the Noel Predator Guard on the nest
box. The parents were initially
frightened by it and would not fly to the nest box with the insects for the
chicks. This fear lasted about 10
minutes and, thereafter, the parents seemed to enjoy the guard and often used
it as a perch.
The Bluebirds have produced two broods of 4 or 5 chicks each
for 5 years beginning in 2006. Although
there have been some losses each year, the 2007 loss of the entire brood has not been
repeated. The Noel Predator Guard has
been accepted by the parents and perhaps it has offered the protection needed
for the chicks.