A bluebird contemplates: Should I stay or should I go?

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bluebirds at feeder
Offering bluebirds a food supply can influence their decision to remain, rather than migrate. That is why it is your obligation to offer food daily throughout the winter months once you start. (Tami Gingrich photo)

I’ll admit it. I’m a slave to my bluebirds. They know it, too. Every morning, they perch impatiently in the trees surrounding their feeder, chirping sweetly yet incessantly, demanding their breakfast. And I deliver it to them, day after day, all winter long.

Wait, bluebirds in winter? You bet! Things are changing. The climate is warming.

I have lived in northeast Ohio my entire life. When I was a child, winter started in November and the ground remained white through the end of March. Winters were fun, but they were harsh.

Back then, you would have never seen a bluebird during those winter months, and we could not herald their return to our area until late April or early May. Can you remember the last time we had an all-white winter?

Last winter, we had fewer than half a dozen significant snows here in Geauga County, and the ground, overall, remained exposed and brown throughout most of the season. It is this new trend of mild winters that has some species of birds rethinking their migration plans.

There are a host of bird species that remain here as year-round residents such as chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and woodpeckers. There are also birds such as dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows who arrive here on their wintering grounds from the north.

All of these species thrive on the seeds and suet that we offer them at our feeders. But the majority of our songbirds have no choice but to wing their way south where there is a reliable source of insects and nectar.

Although bluebirds thrive on insects, they also dine on berries. Here in northeast Ohio, there are a host of plants which produce berries that persist throughout the winter. To name a few, viburnum, dogwood, sumac, winterberry and poison ivy all produce berries that are higher in lipids than in sugars. The fats in these fruits give birds an important source of sustainable energy and nutrition.

As I type this, our Eastern Bluebirds are busy making the decision whether to remain here or migrate south. In addition to assessing weather patterns, pressure systems and temperatures, they are busy taking inventory of the available food sources that would need to sustain them should they remain.

Both options have their risks. To attempt a journey south is a gamble. Birds risk exhaustion, predators, bad weather, starvation and building collisions throughout their journey. Yet, equally extreme dangers loom if they stay. Heavy snowstorms with below freezing temperatures can easily wipe them out.

Their biggest danger, however, is freezing rain. Build-up of ice from these storms completely encapsulates berry supplies, leaving bluebirds helpless and starving. In the end, some bluebirds make the decision to depart while others choose to remain.

blue bird in snow
So why would a bluebird want to stay here and ride out the winter? The answer is simple. Having the first choice of prime nesting sites in the spring is a huge advantage. (Tami Gingrich photo)

So why would a bluebird want to stay here and ride out the winter? The answer is simple. Having the first choice of prime nesting sites in the spring is a huge advantage. Northeast Ohio bluebirds will begin to nest as soon as the weather breaks. In recent years, that has been as early as the second week of March.

Not only do these overwintering bluebirds lay claim to superior nesting sites, but they also get a jump on rearing a family. If bluebirds start early, they can produce up to three broods throughout the spring and summer, a huge benefit to ensuring the survival of their species.

Early nesting, however, also has its disadvantages. Surprise snowstorms or cold snaps which can occur all the way into May can easily wipe out a family of nestlings. Adults, busy trying to keep themselves alive, are forced to forsake their youngsters.

During my 31 years of heading up the bluebird box program at Geauga Park District, I witnessed hundreds of heartbreaking failures. Luckily, bluebirds, after a failed nest attempt, almost always begin again.

There are many ways we can help bluebirds. Providing a nest box is a great benefit to the bird’s reproductive success. But you can also provide lifesaving food for them throughout the winter. Bags of dried mealworms provide them with a quick snack when they need one, but the crispy insects offer little in the way of nutrition.

Live mealworms, however, are a great source of protein for both adults and youngsters. These worms, which are actually beetle larvae, can be purchased online from mealworm farms. It is much cheaper to buy them in batches of 1,000 to 10,000 than it is to buy a couple dozen from a pet store.

The worms can be placed in an aquarium with dry oatmeal for food and slices of potato for moisture. Stored in a cool location, they can remain vigorous for months.

Yet, I find that my bluebirds are happiest when fed a special recipe that was given to me by a friend some years ago. She called it Magical Bird Butter and the recipe follows:

2 cups lard (I use rendered suet)
2 cups crunchy peanut butter
1 cup sunflower hearts
3 cups cornmeal

I buy my suet from a local butcher and render it down in a crockpot, measuring out 2-cup portions and placing them in the freezer for storage. For the recipe, I melt down the suet and then add the peanut butter. Once melted together, I dump in the sunflower seeds and finally the cornmeal.

After mixing everything together thoroughly, I let the pan sit for about 30 minutes to cool slightly, mixing again before pouring the contents into a container for cold storage. When preparing to feed, simply take a strong spoon and scrape the mixture into various-sized small pieces until you have the desired amount and place out on a feeder that will easily allow for an uninterrupted landing.

Once your bluebirds discover this buffet, they will visit several times a day. In fact, there are dozens of different species of birds that will relish this treat.

It is important to realize, however, that before you start down this path, you must make a commitment to yourself and a promise to your birds. Offering bluebirds a food supply can influence their decision to remain, rather than migrate. That is why it is your obligation to offer food daily throughout the winter months.

Yes, they can be demanding. Supplies can get expensive. But your birds will come to depend on you during inclement weather, and forgetting to feed them could lead to their demise. Suffice it to say, I bend over backwards to keep my bluebirds happy. After all, these endearing beacons of blue are a joy to have around.

carolina wrens
There are dozens of different species of birds that relish Magical Bird Butter during winter months, including Carolina Wrens. (Tami Gingrich photo)

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A life-long resident of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Tami Gingrich recently retired from a 31-year career as a Biologist/Field Naturalist with Geauga Park District. Tami has been a licensed bird bander for over 30 years. Her hobbies include photography, lepidoptera, gardening and spending time with her husband on their small farm in Middlefield, Ohio. She welcomes any questions or comments at Royalwalnutmoth@gmail.com and will gladly consider suggestions for future articles.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you!
    I have a flock of 10 staying for 8 or so weeks for the last 2 winters and then when the weather breaks poof! They’re gone!
    Maybe this magic bird butter will convince them to stay!

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