The Western bluebird, along with its cousins the Mountain bluebird and the Eastern bluebird, is a member of the thrush family, a large group of perching birds that feed typically on insects and fruits. Despite being smaller in size than the American robin, the bluebird, with its bejeweled brilliance, is an outsized symbol of happiness and joy in American culture. In the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz," Judy Garland sang about this bird. Shirley Temple in the movie "The Blue Bird" also sang about it, and Duke Ellington with Billy Strayhorn performed bluebird themed songs. Before Europeans arrived in America, the native Navajos embodied bluebirds in their folk beliefs and rituals, believing them to be a signal of sunrise and renewal.
Western bluebirds live in the west of North America (Canada and USA), south to northern Baja California and the central part of Mexico. Northern populations fly south for the winter, while those in the south of the range often are resident, except for seasonal altitudinal movements. This species lives in open conifer forests, forest edges, farmland, and streamside groves where there are scattered trees with grassy areas to forage.
Habits and lifestyle
Western bluebirds migrate for short distances. From July until October, they migrate to winter nesting sites, while from February to March they return to the spring nesting sites. Birds at high elevations travel to lower elevations during winter to search for food. Western bluebirds hunt by diving down from perches to catch prey. Sometimes, they catch prey in the air, or probe insects from leaves. They beat large prey against a branch or the ground before eating them. During winter, they live in small family groups. These kin groups give protection from predators, with the group's size depending on the availability of food. To provide protection, males use the group to find a mate or birds as helpers at their nest. After winter, the birds migrate to higher elevations for mating or to help at another nest. During the breeding season these birds are very territorial.
Diet and nutrition
Western bluebirds are monogamous, with males and females forming long-term bonds, though they are not always faithful. They are co-operative breeders, with helper birds helping the parents raise young. Courtship displays involve the male singing and fluttering in front of the female, with his wings half open and his tail fanned. He may preen the female and offer food to her. His territory is for the purpose of mating, nesting and feeding. The breeding season is from May to July. Nests are situated in natural cavities, such as woodpecker holes or dead trees or, they may be in nest boxes. The female builds the nest, with the male helping sometimes. 4 to 6 eggs of pale blue are laid, 1 or 2 clutches per season. Incubation is by the female and is for about 12 to 18 days, while she is fed by the male. Chicks are altricial when they hatch, and the female broods them, fed again by the male. Sometimes her mate stays near the nest while she is searching for food, however, he doesn’t brood the chicks. But both parents feed their young, which fledge at around 2 to 3 weeks. They reach reproductive maturity when they are one year old.
These birds are not endangered but their habitat is threatened from extensive logging and the growth of forests due to the prevention of natural fires, as well as development and grazing that have reduced habitat availability. In appropriately wooded habitat, dead trees may be removed in people's effort to clean up; however, this limits places where cavity nesters such as bluebirds can find nest sites. Also, aggressive, non-native European starlings and House sparrows, which are also cavity nesters, may move into many of the sites that might otherwise be used by Western bluebirds.
The All About Birds resource records that the Western bluebird's total breeding population is 6.7 million. 67% of the birds spend some of their year in the U.S., in Mexico it is 52%, and there is 1% breeding in Canada. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.
Being insectivorous, these birds affect insect populations in their range. Their chicks also serve as prey for chipmunks and squirrels.
Fun facts for kids
- Western bluebirds use a range of calls to communicate. They make a mellow “few”, which extends in brief song to “few few fawee”. The “few” or “kew” call, and the “che-check” calls are for location between mates during the breeding season. The defense call when there is an intruder, is a kind of “squawk” uttered by the male.
- Western bluebirds are sometimes helped by birds from other species, such as Violet-green swallows, which have been observed feeding Western bluebirds and defending their nests.
- Studies have shown that many Western bluebird hatchlings have fathers who are not the bond male.
- Western bluebirds look gentle, but territorial battles can get heated. Adult males may grab each other by the legs, tumble their opponent to the ground, pin him to the ground, and stand over him, jabbing at him with his beak.
- A Western bluebird weighs around an ounce and needs about 15 calories per day, or 23 if raising young.