Mar 30, 2008

Bluebirds of Happiness

Local naturalist Linda Altevers of Erlanger is no stranger to the great outdoors.  An avid birdwatcher and wildflower enthusiast, she can frequently be found exploring the grounds at Marydale; hiking the nature trails at Doe Run, Highland Cemetery, or a variety of Boone County parks; or taking day trips to Red River Gorge or Clifty Falls.  She has hiked all four corners of the U.S. and points in between, from Maine to Alaska, from Florida to southern California.  “People who don’t have a passion for the natural world are really missing out,” said Linda.


It hasn’t been all play either.  Linda has installed hiking trails, cleared away brush, hung nest boxes, conducted outdoor educational programs, monitored trails, and participated in bird counts.  When asked if she’d be willing to monitor the bluebird nest boxes at Highland Cemetery, Linda replied “yes” without a moment’s hesitation.


Northern Kentucky’s neighborhoods as a rule are not suitable bluebird habitat.  Cemeteries though provide the wide-open space that bluebird’s desire.  Highland Cemetery, with its 150 acres of gravesites, is perfect habitat for nesting bluebirds; and the cemetery’s 150 acres of woodlands provides food and shelter for bluebirds during winter months.


Bluebirds have been nesting at Highland since the first bluebird boxes were installed 17 years ago.  “I’ve been monitoring the bluebird boxes for the past 10 years now,” said Linda.  “It has been a battle to compete with the house sparrows, but with diligent monitoring I have somewhat eradicated the competition.  Each year we get not just bluebirds, but also house wrens, tree swallows, chickadees and tufted titmice.”


It’s easy to understand one’s attraction to bluebirds.  “They are extraordinarily beautiful birds,” said Linda.  “Especially the male, with his rusty chest and brilliant blue coloring.”  The female too is attractive, though her coloring is more muted.  Members of the thrush family, our Eastern bluebirds have two western cousins, the Mountain and Western bluebird species.  Most will agree though that our Eastern bluebird is the prettiest of the three species.  As birds go, bluebirds are “eye-candy,” a feast for the visual senses.


Mostly insectivores, bluebirds sit on low perches scouting prey.  With their excellent eyesight they can locate food items more than 100 feet away.  They sit low on perches (or tombstones), wait for bugs to wander by, and will suddenly swoop down on an unsuspecting insect.  During winter when insects become scarce, bluebirds feed on berries and fruit. 


Bluebirds will readily use nest boxes.  In fact, nest boxes have become critical for their survival.  Over the years land has been cleared for development, and trees with natural nest cavities have been cut down for firewood.  Wooden fence posts that previously provided nesting cavities have now been replaced with metal posts.  With the supply of natural nesting cavities greatly reduced, the single most important thing landowners can do to help increase populations of bluebirds is to hang nest boxes.  It’s not unusual for nest boxes to be used by bluebirds almost immediately after hanging.  Bluebirds will also roost together in nest boxes during winter months.


Our bluebirds are now beginning their nesting season.  They’ll lay 4 to 5 light blue eggs (occasionally white) in a cup-shaped nest made of woven grass or pine needles.  Incubation lasts approximately 2 weeks. The nestlings will remain in the nest 18 to 21 more days before fledging.  They normally have two broods per season. 


Bluebirds do not have it easy.  As cavity nesters, they must constantly compete with aggressive non-native species for suitable nest sites.  English house sparrows and European starlings are their biggest competition.  House sparrows are especially brutal, as they will frequently kill bluebirds, destroy their eggs, or drive them from their nests.  Predators, as black rat snakes and raccoons, will frequently raid nest boxes and eat eggs, nestlings and adults.


Severe winters too can take a toll and this past winter was especially tough.  By February bluebirds have lost much of their fat reserves and food is scarce.  Unfortunately that’s when our worst weather of the season hit this past year.  Bluebird landlords across the area were reporting significant losses when checking their boxes in March.  Monitors in Kenton and Boone County parks found dead bluebirds in several boxes, Bill Remke found as many as 7 dead per box on his Petersburg farm, and Linda found dead bluebirds in several cemetery boxes.  “It was devastating,” said Linda.  “I haven’t seen a bluebird yet this season at the cemetery.  I’m afraid we lost all of our resident bluebirds.”


Linda won’t give up though.  She’ll continue to monitor the bluebird nest boxes as other “good” birds are using the boxes as well.  Chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, tree swallows and titmice can be equally rewarding.  Hopefully though, bluebirds will find their way to the cemetery and again nest this season.  “What a great feeling when you check your nest box and see the success of the nesting bluebirds,” said Linda.





If you would like to know more about bluebirds, check out the North American Bluebird Society’s website at  If you would like free plans to make a bluebird nest box, contact Gayle at or at


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