By Juliet Berger, President, Washtenaw Audubon Society and ornithologist for the City of Ann Arbor Natural Area Preservation
When wandering the trails of Matthaei, you’re likely to encounter the royal-blue flash and happy song of the eastern bluebird.
Matthaei Botanical Gardens is home to many bluebird pairs at this time of year, as they get ready to weave their nests and lay eggs in the many nesting boxes provided on the grounds. Particularly fond of meadows, eastern bluebirds hunt for beetles and other insects from low perches. They may be seen pouncing on the ground and bringing a morsel to a branch to finish it off.
The male of the species is bright royal blue, with a reddish orange breast. The female eastern bluebird is gray overall, with blue feathers in her wings and tail and lighter orange breast. In winter, bluebirds form loose wandering flocks, with parent bluebirds often wintering in a location with their young of the year from the last brood of the season. So, while it is possible to see bluebirds here in the winter, in spring, when they sing and perch on top of their nest boxes, they are most obvious and easy to enjoy. They sing their lilting tune, “cheer- cheer cheerful charmer,” often in early morning and late afternoon. You can hear a pair softly calling to one another, if you watch and listen closely as they feed and fly about.
Soon, female eastern bluebirds will construct their cavity nests, with the male occasionally bringing choice pieces of grass. She lays 3-5 bright blue eggs, taking turns with the male in incubating the eggs. After a couple of weeks, the young are born completely helpless and must be fed throughout the day and kept warm (brooded) by their parents until they grow feathers. After about 3 weeks, bluebird babies are ready to fledge (fly) from the nest. Young bluebirds are shaped like their parents, with hunched shoulders and long wings, but unlike their parents, they are speckled on their breast. Mom and dad bluebird will feed their young for several weeks before starting a new nest, often in the same box or tree cavity.
Like their cousins, the American robin, bluebirds grace our natural areas with their beauty, and are harbingers of happiness and spring’s affirmation of life. In the mid-20-century bluebirds’ numbers had declined greatly due to invasive cavity nesting species like the house sparrow, which aggressively pushed out the bluebirds from their nest holes. Thankfully, folks like the staff at the gardens put up and maintained nest boxes, which has helped the species recover. Enjoy the eastern bluebirds at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, a great place to see and hear them in spring.
Juliet Berger is president of the Washtenaw Audubon Society, a mission-affiliated group that meets at Matthaei Botanical Gardens most months. We encourage everyone to learn more about birds.