By George Walter
There are three fairly common bluebirds in our county, Steller’s jays, scrub jays, and western bluebirds. This week we focus on the Western Bluebirds, which are the smaller and lesser known of the three.
Western Bluebirds were once much more common here than they are today. Yelm area elders called them “Blue Robins”, the first bird to return in the spring, sometimes as early as mid-February. (The robins spend the whole winter here. As they do not “return” to our region, they cannot fulfill their traditional role as the first bird of spring).
Bluebirds are thrushes, resembling a robin in general shape but much smaller. There are three species in North America: Eastern, Mountain and Western. The western male has a blue head, wings and back which contrasts with its gray belly and orange sides. In good light, a male with fresh plumage is truly a stunning sight. Females are much more slightly bluish-grey. These are birds of our open grasslands and oak forests where pairs will establish nesting territories.
Western Bluebirds have a song, but it is only sung early in the morning and therefore rarely heard. However, they frequently call each other throughout the day, so hearing faint “little, little” notes lets you know the bluebirds are there. After fledging, the adults and their young form a small herd, calling more or less constantly as they move in search of food.
They are primarily insect eaters, sitting on open perches looking for prey and then flying on the ground to kill. In summer, they feast on grasshoppers and the like. They also eat ripening fruits and berries.
Bluebirds nest in cavities, woodpecker holes and rotten spots in snags. Two invasive bird species, house sparrows and European starlings, also nest in cavities, and by the 1950s they were supplanting all bluebird species for nesting sites in North America.
In response, activists began making and installing handmade wooden boxes, creating more nesting cavities. Bluebirds, as well as other cavity-nesting species, respond well to boxes.
Some longtime county residents and conservationists may remember Jack Davis. In the early 1980s, Jack was setting up bluebird boxes here and there around the county, but with no success. Knowing that I worked for the Nisqually Tribe and had occasional access to Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis McChord), Jack asked me if I would be willing to take a few of his bluebird boxes to the prairies of the strong. (Getting to Fort Lewis was easier than those days before 9/11).
In a biological survey of Fort Lewis in the late 1970s, the Western Bluebird was listed as “probably present”, but no birds were found. Well, a few pairs of bluebirds have found and used the Jack Davis boxes I installed, and it’s been noticed. Within a few years, the project grew from an informal and low-key activity to an organized and officially recognized activity in Fort Lewis. Somehow I ended up being the person who ended up leading the project.
The project provided several nesting boxes of standard design, and I was granted access to all areas of Fort Lewis, including (with an escort) inaccessible places like the rear of the impact area of the artillery. Weekends and after hours were spent tending to boxes. Fort Lewis is a large place, with lots of good grassland and oak forest habitat, and by the late 1980s I had installed some 400 boxes, spread across the open areas of the fort in Pierce and Thurston. Many of those boxes are still there, as are the bluebirds, but not me – I retired from the project a long time ago.
However, it is certainly fair to say that the JBLM bluebird project has been and continues to be a resounding success. Western Bluebirds are no longer rare. They have spread widely beyond the boundaries of the JBLM, and in fact any property with open space and a few oak trees can set up a box and has a reasonable chance of attracting breeding bluebirds.
George Walter is Environmental Program Manager in the Natural Resources Department of the Nisqually Indian Tribe; he has also been interested in bird watching for over 40 years. It can be attached to [email protected]
The photos in this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 14-year-old Olympia-area birdwatcher and avid photographer.