Most bluebird enthusiasts would probably admit that the main reason they feed bluebirds is for the sheer enjoyment of watching them.
In the southern states, bluebirds often fail to find sufficient food during late winter and early spring when wild and ornamental berries are gone and there is a scarcity of insects. The critical period for birds is from February into April, although earlier snows or sleet can be devastating. At that time of year, there may be sufficient food, but when covered with snow or ice, the birds can simply not get to it.
The blizzard of March 1, 1927; a sleet and snowstorm of March 1-2, 1980; and the late winter storm of March 13-14, 1993 created havoc for all wildlife. With the possible exception of some sumac, all the berries were gone by the time the storms hit and thousands of birds of different species perished. At times like these, bluebird feeding becomes more than just an enjoyable pastime but a necessity, even though supplemental feeding can help only a small percentage of the total population. The planting of Fosteri holly could supply some late berries.
Bluebirds that winter in the northern winter range have greater need and visit feeders more often. In the northern states and Canada, however, no feeding should be done in the early winter because it might delay some birds that migrate South. When the migrating birds return in the spring, late snows can cause heavy losses, so supplemental feedings at these times will help them survive. Most of us know that bluebirds do not regularly visit standard feeders. Firms that promote feeders and the sale of birdseed make little mention of bluebirds and, in fact, few commercial bird feed mixes contain anything that bluebirds will take. It is obvious that we must use a feed that bluebird prefer, but will come back to for seconds.
A choice or favored berry of the bluebird is the Flowering Dogwood berry (Cornus Flordia). The berry of the dogwood is higher in lipid or fat content than many other berries. (This subject is explored in the August, 1984 issue of Natural History). Dogwood berries do not stay on the tree as long as other fruits and berries. By mid-winter, dogwood trees are usually bare. Bluebirds do feed on other berries such as pokeberries, Virginia creeper, sumac, rose hips, mistletoe, hackberry, cedar, holly and many other wild and ornamental dried fruits and berries. The Fosteri #2 (Female) holly is an excellent ornamental tree that provides an abundance of berries for late winter and early spring. There are reports of bluebirds feeding on pecan pieces, coconut, bread crumbs, cake, shelled sunflower, suet, prepared cornmeal and flour mixes, peanut butter, hamburger, cat food, etc. Actually, if you mix other berries with the dogwood in the top feed tray, the birds will take the dogwood first.
Dogwood berries are not always available, so they are mixed with raisins and currants. These currants are small raisins dried from the Black Corinth grape. Although some people cut the raisins in half, bluebirds will swallow these and the dogwood berries whole. The main purpose for using dogwood berries is to serve as a starter or primer to encourage and train bluebirds to take raisins. Many smaller birds and the cardinal remove the flesh from the dogwood seed. The dogwood seed does not pass through the bluebird. After a few minutes, the bird regurgitates the clean seed and is then ready to feed again. This accounts for a 20 to 30 minute interval between feedings, especially on cold, windy or snowy periods.
Where and how do you obtain dogwood berries? The best berries are to be found on yard trees. Start cruising residential streets in early to mid-October to locate well-fruited trees. Avoid new or very old residential areas. The best trees will be from between fifteen to thirty years old.
Don't become easily discouraged if they seem hard to find. Green berries among green leaves or red berries among red leaves can be difficult to see. However, waiting for most of the leaves to fall is a mistake because migrating birds can clean the trees first. A flock of starlings, blackbirds, cedar waxwings, or robins can strip a large tree in a few minutes.
Obtain permission from the tree owner to pick the berries at a later date. Be sure to explain that removing the berries will not affect the next year's bloom or fruiting. Don't start picking until the berries are ripe, usually mid-October or early November. If the flesh still clings tight to the seed, they are not ripe. Berries that ripen late hold their quality better in storage.
Because the dogwood berry is a fruit, it can be infested with a specific dogwood fruit fly worm. If there are several dark berries on a tree, avoid it. Extended warm weather in the fall causes the worm problem to be worse while later maturing berries seem to have fewer worms.
Damaged or wormy berries do not keep well in refrigeration. Like a bad potato, a damaged berry can cause other good ones to decay. Wormy berries are all right for planting, however.
Dogwood berries have to be picked, not shaken, from the limbs. Spread a sheet of ground cover material, tough enough to support ladders, under the tree. Pick the berries, allowing them to fall on the ground cover. Next, remove leaves and large twigs (although some trash material will help to prevent bulk berries from going into heat) prior to final cleaning and refrigeration. Lesser amounts can be picked by hand using a small pail or container hung about the neck.
If there is not too much spoilage, five gallons is a suggested amounts to pick for one feeder to feed bluebirds only. Yields of berries per tree can vary from five to twenty-five pounds on a good year. (The 1985 and 1990 crops of dogwood berries were very light. 1993 was a good crop year.) When large amounts of leaves, twigs, and small debris are with the berries, clean by using screens. First pass the berries through a 1/2-inch mesh screen and then filter the berries over a 1/4-inch mesh screen. Berries can be cleaned with a large fan. Remove all damaged, dark or wormy berries by hand. Store in ventilated UNSEALED containers at 29-32° F. A small container of water, one inch deep, that alternates from freezing to thawing makes a good temperature gauge. Check refrigerator temperature daily.
If necessary, grade through ALL the berries once every 10 to 12 days. Place bad, dark or moldy berries on the top feed tray or scatter on the ground under the feeder or birdbath. The damage berries can also be placed under low bushes for many of the birds that prefer protection while feeding. Another use for damaged berries is to plant them immediately into WELL DRAINED soil, about 1/2 inch deep. Some seed will germinate the first spring and the others the following year. For best germination, the flowering dogwood (Cornus Florida) seed needs to receive the proper stratification or cold treatment.
I have kept a few berries in sawdust mix, just below freezing, for over six months. Berries mixed with equal parts by volume of dry wood sawdust or fine shavings keep well in storage, maintain quality, and last longer than any method tried to date. Berries layered with paper towels in plastic buckets keep well also. As you will see, this is an area where much research needs to be done.
There is a three-step training program to help the bluebirds become accustomed to this feeding process. The first step is to help them find the feeder; the second is for them to go inside to feed; and the third is to have them eating raisins and currants when the dogwood berries are gone.
Training must be done early BEFORE the sever weather begins. It may take as little as a day or as long as a month for the bluebirds to find the feeder, though most find it in less than a week. This training is important for it stands to reason that if the bluebirds know where the feeders are, they can visit them with no delay and will be able to roost during a cold storm with a full crop (craw).
Place the feeder in the best location to observe. This, however, may not be the ideal spot for the bluebirds to find. Feeders can be placed in areas not suitable for nest boxes. The south side of some form of windbreak provides an ideal location for feeders on very cold windy days.
To encourage them to start taking food, it is helpful to place two, three or more temporary flat, open trays on support posts near their regular hunt perch sites. Feed on these trays will be visible to birds perched above. Place no feed inside to begin with until the birds actually start investigating inside.
It sometimes helps to place a few berries around the bird bath or in the ground below the feeder.
The best bluebird feeder is a flat top nesting box that has had very little modification. The slanting roof can be used if proper supports are made to level the top tray.
The top feed tray is constructed on 1/8-inch x 1/8-inch wire mesh, 6 inches square and 3/4 inches deep. This tray rests on two wires or 1/4-inch cleats on top of the roof. The drainage under this tray is necessary. Two small 18 gauge copper wires stretched across the tray and wrapped around two nails on each side of the roof will hold it firmly in place.
The aluminum food tray on the inside is 3/4-inches less than the inside dimension of box to allow easy removal for filling and cleaning. The inside tray should be approximately three inches blew the entrance hole, low enough to force the bluebirds to go inside to reach the feed. Support with berry basket or blocks of wood.
The purpose for the inside tray is for feeding the cavity nesting birds only - when other non-cavity birds take possession of the top trays and keep the bluebirds away. If these birds continue to be a problem, place the feed inside only. The bluebird, chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch, and woodpecker will go inside for the feed.
There will be a pecking order at the feeder. It is helpful to control this by placing two or three stakes of equal height three or four feet form the feeder.
Securing a 3-foot limb, dowel, reed, or yardstick across the top will aid in separating the bluebirds. (See sketched layout on last page.)
The latest modification in this feeder is the lowering of the entire front 2 inches in order to create a more spacious rectangular opening. This will allow bluebirds to make easier and quicker entries or exits. For early morning and late afternoon feeding the large opening provides more light inside the feeder.
The lowered front can remain in the down position until starlings or other unwanted birds find the feed. It can then be raised to the original position and the bluebird will then enter through the regular entrance. In the case of marauders, there may be a need to lower the inside feed tray even more.
If the feeder is in mockingbird territory, the mockingbird will not allow other birds to take feed so he must be forced to go elsewhere. Other feed stations can be placed outside his territory. If the distance between each feeder is 250-300 feet, the mockingbird cannot guard them all.
Bluebirds are not overly sociable at the feeder. Most visits are quick and the seldom linger. Two bluebirds on the same feed tray at the same tine is not a common occurrence, except in the very early morning or on cold, snowy or windy days.
It may be appropriate to give some form of call when you place feed in the feeder. In time, the bluebirds may associate the call with the feeding. Also always remove old feed form the inside tray and place on the top tray. Fresh feed should be placed inside.
How long should feeding continue? Several participants in North Carolina have continued to feed through the firs brood. The adult birds carried feed to the nest during the last days before fledging. After the young fledged, they were brought to the area near the feeder to be fed. Occasionally the young perched on the feeder to be fed. Hopefully, in this way the young will learn about the feeder.
Is there a danger of making freeloaders of the bluebirds? This is doubtful. Insects will always be the preferred food. Bluebirds have been observed taking several insects before returning to the feeder for a raisin or currant.
Bluebirds usually visit the feeder on a regular basis early in the morning and late in the afternoon. If, however, it is cold, windy, or snowy, they might be near the feeder most of the day. Accumulations of ice and snow in the feed trays can be removed by pouring warm water over the trays.
To determine what the bluebirds are taking from the feed trays and from which ones, you can start the first feeding by counting the berries and raisins and at the end of the day, count the remaining ones. Do not keep excessive amounts of feed in the trays except for days you may be gone.
Be sure to remove larger berries. Bluebirds can swallow all berries that will pass through a 3/8-inch hole and a few 7/16-inch, but none as large as 1/2-inch. If these larger berries are allowed to dry and shrivel to a smaller size, the birds will readily take them if they have not turned dark.
Dogwood trees are selected and grown by commercial nurseries for their bloom and foliage color. I now have selections with late maturing, wormless berries that remain on the tree longer. A few of the selections are being planted in open fields for further testing and evaluation.
The dogwood berry seems to be able to take temperatures of 15° F on the trees and still remain red and edible to the birds. Temperatures near the F zero point may cause the berries to turn dark after thawing.
Bluebirds eat and run. Their visits may be so quick that you can easily miss them. Most blue birds swallow one or two berries and fly off with another, although occasionally they will take more. A flicker can take 13 berries at one feeding. It is wise to place the feeder some distance away from another standard feeder to avoid competition.
Feeding bluebirds may not be for everyone who feeds birds in the normal way. The bluebird feeder is most rewarding to those genuinely interested.
If you do any serious feeding or observation, it is good to make accurate daily notes of all the activity at the feeder. Also be sure to note the prevailing weather conditions.
Sometimes overly determined bluebirds insist upon nesting in the inside feed tray. When this happens, the best thing to do is to remove the support and lower the tray with the nest.
Whether you have good or negative results with the storage of the berries, it is important to know how they were stored. Your experience with different feeds, bluebird feeders, and the feeding techniques will add to the knowledge of this subject.
Share this information with us so that we may become more successful in helping bluebirds in the future. Drop a note detailing your progress and/or problems to:
Jack Finch, Homes for Bluebirds, Inc.,
Rt. 1, Box 341, Bailey, North Carolina 27807
(A twenty-five minute film is now available for schools, programs, and nature centers entitled "Bluebirds . . . Bring Them Back." Included in this film is a segment on a winter feeding program for bluebirds. It is a look at research in progress. For more information, contact Berlet Films, 1646 Kimmel Road, Jackson, Michigan 49201.)
Note: The notes, observation, and information presented here are current as of January 1994. Since this is an ongoing research feeding project, there will be continuing changes and developments.
I would like to thank Judith Rogers for editing this material so that it can be shared.
Jack Finch - Rt 1, Box 341 - Bailey, NC 27807