In the summer of 2012 I was very excited when a pair of bluebirds began nesting in the box in our backyard for the second year. I put the telephoto lens on my camera and crept as close as I dared at different times of the day and got some very pleasing pictures. But I really wanted more.
Part of what I loved about wild bird rehab was the period when the fledglings were first released but returned to me for food throughout the day. Until they began finding food themselves I continued to represent a food source and they would land on my head and shoulders when they saw me in the yard. I wanted something more like this with the bluebirds – something more like a relationship and an incentive to make them want to return year after year.
Mealworms! This is the way to a bluebird’s heart. There were four eggs in the box and the female was brooding throughout the day. I know the number of eggs because the side of the box lifts and when the female was out of the box I would check to see how many eggs there were. This may sound really interfering but monitoring the box can make a difference if, for instance, an egg breaks or one of the baby birds dies and attracts parasites which can affect the entire brood. Timely intervention can save the rest of the clutch.
From time to time the female flew out in search of food while the male stood guard on top on the box or went in with the eggs. My plan was simple and astonishingly successful. I placed a clay saucer with a few live mealworms directly on top of the bluebird box. I put a ‘flag’ of blue tape on the dish as ‘color recognition’ in hopes I could move the dish closer to the house and the blue would alert them to the new position
The first day the only result was baked dead mealworms. The second day I watched the female emerge from the box and go directly to the dish and begin to feed! Then both birds were on the edge of the saucer eating the mealworms. I originally thought if the bluebirds ate from the saucer I would begin to move it incrementally closer until I could put it on the balcony railing of my studio but I was too excited for increments and the third day I moved the saucer straight to the railing. I added mealworms and called ‘Blue, Blue’. Within an hour the bluebirds were eating four feet away from where I stood at the studio window!
From then on each time I added mealworms to the saucer I called ‘Blue Blue’. Within a week I could call and see both bluebirds come from different directions straight to the tree above the balcony before dropping down to eat. In the courtship phase before the eggs hatched the male would frequently feed the female but later, as the nestlings grew, it was a feeding frenzy with both birds filling their beaks with mealworms and heading back to the box.
Later in the summer, between the first and second broods there were a few weeks when the young from the first brood came to the mealworm saucer but when the second brood fledged the whole family disappeared into the woods.
On a January day in 2013 with a blizzard in the weather forecast I looked out and saw a bluebird in the backyard. I didn’t have any live mealworms but had some freeze dried in a package I bought the previous summer when it became difficult to get live mealworms shipped due to the heat. I got the saucer and filled it with mealworms then went to the studio door and called ‘Blue, Blue’. Within seconds he was at the saucer, his dislike of freeze dried mealworms overcome! For the rest of the winter a small flock of bluebirds were regular daily visitors.
As I write today with bitter cold temperatures outdoors all six of this winter’s flock have been back and forth to the mealworm dish throughout the day. There are four males and two females. Their bright blue backs and soft red bellies warm my heart and help make this colorless season easier to bear.