Sunday, March 23, 2008

Western Bluebird--Sialia mexicana

This male Western Bluebird feels right at home in Mason Regional Park which has mixed trees and grass.

The Western Bluebird, as the name implies, is a western bird. Its range is from British Columbia south to Central Mexico. It goes no farther east than western Texas and western Montana. It is the least migratory bluebird, moving from upper to lower altitudes more than moving from north to south during the winter. So you might see Western Bluebirds up in Crestline or Arrowhead in the spring or summer, but more likely would see them at lower levels in the winter. If you are looking for a blue bird with an orange chest in Orange County, this is most likely the bird you are looking for.

Western Bluebird male perched on a picnic table at Mason Regional Park .

The male has very brilliant blue feathers on his head, back, and tail. His chest is an orange or bold chestnut color and his undertail coverts also have some chestnut coloring. There is a lighter blue on his stomach. The female is similar, but much duller in color. Western Bluebirds are part of a family of songbirds called thrushes. Thrushes are small or medium-sized songbirds that include the Varied Thrush, the American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend's Solitaire, Swainson's Thrush, and the Hermit Thrush. Western Bluebirds have a pleasant song. Nothing very fancy, but certainly a nice song to listen to as you walk through the open woodlands and forests this bluebird calls home. Unlike the Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds, the Western Bluebird's habitat is not primarily meadows or pastureland. It prefers a few trees. Open woodlands and even open coniferous forests are ideal. Thrushes often feed on the ground.

Western Bluebird on the grass looking for insects at Mason Regional Park .

It eats fruits, seeds, and insects. It will fly down from a perch to the ground for insects, sow bugs, or spiders, then return to a perch. They will eat insects such as ants, termites, and even insects as large as grasshoppers and crickets. Sometimes it almost seems like a flycatcher. I often spot a Western Bluebird when I see it flying down from the trees to the ground and back. Also will glean insects off the trees. They also eat berries from mistletoe plants, elderberry trees, and juniper trees and other fruits are part of their winter diet.

Western Bluebird in Mason Regional Park .

Western Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters--which means they find either naturally occurring holes or those made by woodpeckers or nestboxes. They do not make the holes themselves. The mated pair often have helpers who are not the parents, but may be older offspring of the parents who help the parents care for the young. They nest about twice in during the breeding season and lay about 5 eggs each time. Western Bluebirds may also on occasion nest in something that approximates a tree cavity. Western Bluebirds on rare occasions have been observed nesting in crevices in tree bark, or in cavities in roof tiles, and attempting to nest in a mail box. These are unusual nest locations.

Western Bluebird at Irvine Regional Park in Orange, California

In a study made at the Corvalis Bluebird Trail in Oregon in the 1980's (Eltzroth and Robinson, Journal of Field Ornithology: Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1984), several occasions of Violet Green Swallows assisting Western Bluebirds in caring for Western Bluebird nestlings by defending the nest against predators, removing fecal sacs, and feeding nestlings. The usual pattern was that a mated pair of Violet Green Swallows with a failed nest nearby began assisting a pair of Western Bluebirds in caring for their young. The study suggested that Violet Green Swallow pair might benefit by nesting in the box themselves and raising their own young after helping the Western Bluebird nestling fledge. In an area in which nesting cavities were limited, assisting the Western Bluebirds who already had a nest might provide Violet Green Swallows with the opportunity to be the next tenant with minimal competition.

Western Bluebird at Irvine Regional Park in Orange, California

Two the main competitors of Western and Eastern Bluebirds are aggressive, alien species from England. They were brought here by well-meaning, but ignorant people who wanted to see these familiar British species in the United States. In the 1890, 100 Starlings were introduced into Central Park by Eugene Schieffelin, a man taken with Shakespeare's reference to them in his writings. Starting in 1851 and for several years following, others did the same thing with House Sparrows (to be differentiated from House Finches--a native species). My English great-grandfather called them chippies. He recognized them right away as English Sparrows. No one realized the danger of invasive alien species at that time. The problem with European Starlings and House Sparrows is that both are cavity nesters and about the time they came over to our shores natural cavities for cavity nesters were in serious decline. Due to our removal of dead trees used by many species, clearing of land, and replacement of wood with metal in for fence posts and other construction, cavity nesters began to decline over time. The avian invaders swept the country from the Eastern United States to the West. First the Eastern Bluebird suffered decline and then the Western. As land development followed, so did decline. It was a serious problem for Bluebirds and cavity nesters of all kinds.

Western Bluebird box in Huntington Central Park.

In the late 1920's, Thomas E. Musselman of Quincy, Illinois began to build bluebird boxes. He invented the "bluebird trail"--a series of bluebird nesting boxes. He places the first bluebird trails along roads in his home county in Illinois. The idea spread. Soon there were thousands of nest boxes for Eastern Bluebirds set up in the eastern United States. In the late 1960's, Hubert W. Prescott of Portland, Oregon was similarly concerned with the Western Bluebirds in his area of Oregon. He was the moving force behind bluebird trails for the Western Bluebird in Oregon. The Portland Audubon Society maintains bluebird trails in the area currently.

Western Bluebird nesting box in Shipley Nature Center in Huntington Central Park.

The North American Bluebird Society was established in 1978. Perhaps it has caught on so much because this is a species that the average citizen can help by putting up a box or working with a group who maintains local bluebird trails in parks, golf courses, and other natural areas. Bluebird nestboxes do not have a perch which both Starlings and House Sparrows prefer. The Southern California Bluebird Club was established in Orange County through the efforts of birder Richard Purvis. They help thousands of Western Bluebirds fledge each year by building, installing, and maintaining Bluebird nestboxes. Purvis has invented "The Purvis Lifter" to make maintaining and cleaning his Purvis Nestbox easier. When Purvis started in the 1980s there were only 10 pairs of breeding Western Bluebirds in Orange County. In 2007, the group's nestboxes fledged 5,200 nestlings. At 80 years old, he is an active advocate for Western Bluebirds in Orange County and beyond. Birds and birders owe the Southern California Bluebird Club a lot.
Birding in Orange County is a lot more enjoyable because of their efforts.

Open Woodlands that Western Bluebirds like in Huntington Central Park.

Purvis is in the news again telling people about the dangers of Easter Grass for Western Bluebirds. The plastic grass gets wound around the chicks and choke them and can entangle the parent so that he or she cannot get out of the nest to get them food. Read the whole article from the OC Register here.

Western Bluebird from OC Birder Girl on Vimeo.

When you are out birding in Orange County during Spring or Summer, look for the bright blue bird flying down to the ground and back to its perch. You just may see the Western Bluebird. To make sure you do, check out these places where Western Bluebirds can be found in season:

Some places Western Bluebirds can be found in Orange County

Huntington Central Park

Irvine Regional Park

Laguna Niguel Regional Park

Mile Square Park

Mason Regional Park

O'Neill Regional Park

Peters Canyon Regional Park

Santiago Oaks Regional Park

The Aggressive House Sparrow. Introduced from England to the United States.

OC Birder Girl Links

Central Park in Huntington Beach

Irvine Regional Park in Orange, California

Mason Regional Park

Shipley Nature Center

European Starling. Aggressive cavity nester was imported by misguided Shakespeare fan to New York's Central Park in mid 1800's.

External Links and Resources

All About Birds: Western Bluebirds

Detailed article on the Western Bluebird.

All About Birds: European Starlings

All about an invasive species that threatens the Western and Eastern Bluebird.

All About Birds: House Sparrow

Another invasive species. The ubiquitous McDonald's bird.

American Bird Conservancy: Western Bluebird Reintroduction Project

Animal Diversity Web: Western Bluebird

Detailed article about the Western Bluebird.

Audubon at Home: How to Help Western Bluebirds

Advice on what Western Bluebirds need to survive in your backyard. What plants to grow, what food to offer in the feeder, nest boxes, and more.

Audubon Society of Omaha: History of the Bluebird Movement

Good history of the movement to protect Bluebirds and to provide nest boxes for them.

BirdWeb: Western Bluebird

Great article from the Seattle Audubon Society.

Birding Column: Mesmerized by Western Bluebirds

The Birdman of Bel Air talks about Western Bluebirds.

The Birds of North America Online Preview: Western Bluebirds


Bluebird-L Reference Guide

Reference guide for feeding bluebirds, maintaining nest boxes and more. Great site by Cornell Ornithology Lab, The North American Bluebird Society, and The Birdhouse Network.

Bluebirds of San Diego County

Our neighbors down south are active bluebird supporters.

Birdhouses Help Create a Bluebird Haven

Article about bluebirds and nestboxes in Orange County from Cindy McNatt of the OC Register.

California Bluebird Recovery Program

California organization that

Easter Fluff Kills Bluebirds

OC Register article on how our thoughtless Easter trash kills Western Bluebirds and other birds.

Internet Bird Collection: Western Bluebird

Los Angeles Times: A Hole Lotta Love for the Western Bluebird in O.C.

Newspaper article about the Southern California Bluebird Club and Dick Purvis.

North American Bluebird Society

National Bluebird Society.

Prescott Bluebird Recovery Project

Great site from Oregon about their Bluebird Recovery program.


All about Bluebirds. Great site.

Southern California Bluebird Club

"Our mission is to preserve and protect the Western Bluebird and other cavity nesters in Southern CA." Check out their blog. See the details of the Purvis nestbox system here.

The Western Bluebird Survival Guide

State of Oregon guide to helping the Western Bluebird thrive.

USGS: Western Bluebird

Short, but helpful.

Violet-green Swallows Help Western Bluebirds at the Nest

Fascinating study of interspecies cooperation in raising of young. (Eltzroth and Robinson, Journal of Field Ornithology: Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1984)

Home - Index - Contact - Shop -

Ask the OC Birder Girl -

OC Birder Girl Videos

No comments: