Preparing for some bluebird weather

Because I watch quite a bit of late-night TV, I’m all too familiar with the unending array of after-midnight commercials for all sorts of silly gadgets, gizmos and thingamabobs.

Many of these quirky products are designed to make cooking or housecleaning easier, but just about any activity one can think of will inspire some esoteric invention that will be slickly marketed in the middle of the night.

One recent example would be a portable birdhouse that attaches to a window with suction cups and is open in the back to allow viewing inside the nest as the birds raise their young. It’s almost a good idea.

Based on my experience with suction-cup attachments, that mounting system seems precarious at best. So unless that see-through bird box employs some kind of industrial-strength suction cups, I can just envision the unit popping loose sometime during the nesting process and crashing to the ground, baby birds and all. And attracting birds to plate-glass windows is an even more hazardous situation. Accidentally crashing into a windowpane is almost always a catastrophic event for the bird.

I’ve always enjoyed watching and photographing birds and, for the past three years, have monitored bluebird nest boxes at Canoe Creek State Park. Having watched dozens of bluebirds and tree swallows day to day as they build a nest, lay eggs and tend the young birds until they are fledged and leave the box for good, I can certainly emphasize with anyone who also would like to observe this small miracle of nature firsthand. But rather than going with a plastic window-stick-on birdhouse “as seen on TV,” consider installing some conventional wooden nest boxes around your backyard.

For years, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has offered wooden bluebird nest boxes, either completely assembled or as a do-it-yourself kit with assembly instructions. The boxes or kits sell for $10.60, including sales tax, and can be purchased at the Game Commission’s regional office in Huntingdon or any of the agency’s five other regional offices. Boxes can also be ordered by phone by calling the Game Commission’s Harrisburg office at 1-888-888-3459. Shipping charges will depend on the number of boxes ordered.

For those proficient at woodworking, complete plans for building bluebird boxes can be obtained on the Game Commission website, On the homepage, select the “Self-Help” tab and click on “Build Something for Wildlife” from the dropdown menu.

On the “Woodcrafting Plans” page, click on the link “Plan 4 Medium Nest Box.” When crafting your own boxes, you might want to allow one of sides to pivot open so you can peek inside occasionally to monitor the progress of the baby birds.

“Bluebirds are early nesters, so now is the time to put up new nest boxes, as well as to clean and repair existing boxes,” said Dan Brauning, chief of the Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity Division. “These bluebird boxes enable Pennsylvanians to help wildlife in a natural way.”

Eastern bluebirds are cavity nesters that prefer fields and open areas surrounded by some trees or shrubs. These beautiful native songbirds suffered population declines during the 20th century due in large part to competition for nest sites from the introduction of invasive non-native species like starlings and house sparrows (formerly known as English sparrows). Providing manmade nest boxes has helped the resurgence of bluebirds throughout Pennsylvania.

For best results, bluebird boxes should be mounted on a post or pole 3 to 5 feet high. If possible, the opening in the box should face south and toward a nearby tree. Once a pair of bluebirds claims a box as their home, they will spend several days building a nest from grasses, weeds, pine straw or other fine-textured material that might be available nearby. The female then lays four to six light-blue eggs, which it will incubate for 12 to 14 days. Both parents tend and feed the young birds until they are fledged and ready to leave the box about 18 days later. Because they begin nesting from late March to early April, many bluebird pairs will then produce a second brood by early June.

Bluebird next boxes will also attract other native species, such as tree swallows and house wrens, which are desirable and interesting to watch. Non-native starlings and house sparrows, however, can be a problem.

The inch-and-a-half diameter opening used in bluebird boxes is too small for starlings and will keep those pests away. The smaller house sparrows will readily take over nest boxes if allowed to do so. If you notice house sparrows taking up residence in your box, it is advisable to remove their nest to discourage them.

Although that sounds harsh, these imported birds thrive without any help from humans and will outcompete many native bird species if allowed to gain a foothold.

With the first day of spring now less than two weeks away, some “bluebird weather” would be a most welcome change. Erecting a few bluebird boxes around your property can be a great way to enjoy real bluebirds all spring and summer long.