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Cori Brown: Spring cleaning is really for the birds | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

Yes, it is that time of the year again when dreams (or in my case, nightmares) of spring cleaning come to mind. It is really hard to get motivated to clean when the sun is shining and it’s 65 degrees. I’d rather be birding!

Truth be told, the pandemic has lulled me into laziness. Despite reading articles and seeing videos of people on cleaning frenzies, I chose to indulge in looking at and not acting on the dusty chaos around me.

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I figure no one is coming to visit, so why bother. I’m still locked in minimal maintenance mode.

My day of reckoning, however, is coming very soon. I’m about to get my first vaccine shot. By this time next month, I will have my second one under my belt. The welcome mat will be out for neighbors, friends and family. I can’t wait!

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Of course, lots of elbow grease will now be in order to get the house and gardens back in order. Joy and happiness, with a generous dose of cautious optimism thrown in, will reign again!

My responsibilities go beyond the house and gardens to some tiny houses also on our property. Our numerous bluebird houses are in some need of attention. Some will have to be replaced, others need significant upgrades and still others will just need a dab of cleanup.

You might be thinking, why do bluebirds even need boxes to nest? In an ideal world, bluebirds would go for a natural choice, like old woodpecker holes. When they aren’t available, an artificial box will do just fine. Who wouldn’t want to give these stars of springtime happiness a boost with a little bit of real estate?

As it turns out, some studies show that older bluebirds seem to prefer boxes. Perhaps it’s the minimal search time for just the right house that motivates them. Maybe as more experienced parents, they prefer to spend their time on actual nest building as opposed to house hunting. It’s pure speculation on my part.

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In a few weeks, this bluebird mom will be very busy again.
In a few weeks, this bluebird mom will be very busy again. (Cori Brown Photo)

Contrary to what I’ve always read, it turns out that bluebirds may also prefer snugger nest boxes according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Instead of a 6-inch square on the bottom, a 4-inch square will do. Likewise, for the entrance opening which has always been 1¼ inches, but now can be 1¾ inches. Who knew? That’s the beauty of always learning and putting what you learn into action.

Here are a few basic rules for siting, maintaining and monitoring nest boxes based on my own experience with them:

Just like me, bluebirds love to see the sunrise, so your boxes should always face east.

Make sure your boxes are a minimum of 4 to 6 feet off the ground and at least 300 feet apart from one another.

Add PVC pipe or a baffle below the box to deter predators including snakes, squirrels and raccoons.

Add another predator guard to the entrance opening to make it more difficult for predators to reach in and grab eggs or attack the babies and parents.

Put boxes on stand alone posts instead of fence posts, fences or trees.

Make or buy a box that can be opened from the side or top for easy cleaning.

Vent the box either on the bottom or top to allow heat to escape.

Site boxes in a grassy or open woodland area.

Clean out boxes before spring nesting season starts. Use a scrub brush with warm soapy water to get out any old debris. Let it dry thoroughly before putting it back into use.

To give the bluebirds a head start on nesting, consider adding a small amount of dry pine needles.

You may also want to consider adding a bit of diatomaceous earth to ward off blow flies and other unfriendly insects.

Check your boxes once a week during nesting season for unwanted occupants like house sparrows. Nestwatch advises that “if house sparrows are a problem, consider drilling a second entrance hole beside the first one (so that there are two separate but identical holes on the front panel) to enable bluebirds to better defend boxes from sparrows.”

You can legally remove house sparrow nests, which are distinctively messy and filled with plastic bits and other trash. It is illegal to remove any songbird nests in a bluebird box including house wrens, chickadees, tufted titmice and tree swallows. If you’re not sure who created the nest, go on line to look at photos. By the way, most bluebirds have very neat nests and use one predominant material like pine needles or straw.

The same is true for eggs. This includes cowbird eggs. Cowbirds are not my favorite bird but they are native to our area and their eggs cannot be removed. You will know if a cowbird lays an egg in the nest by its much larger size compared to songbird eggs.

Bluebirds lay between 2 to 7 eggs. Incubation takes approximately 12-14 days. Clean out the box again when the babies have fledged so that it can be used for a second nesting.

Once you know bluebirds are nesting, when and how to monitor becomes critically important.

DO check the box at least once a week. DO spend an absolute minimum amount of time at the box, just enough to note what is going on. DO document what you find and consider sharing the information with NestWatch on line at https://nestwatch.org/. DO stop monitoring 12 days after the eggs hatch to prevent premature exit of the babies from the box. When fledglings are on the ground, let nature take its course.

Some will fall victim to predators, others may appear to be unattended, but rest assured the parents are close by.

I’m looking forward to sprucing up my bluebird houses and putting out the welcome sign for them. It’s a lot easier and much more fun than cleaning the big, old dust magnet of a house I live in! Happy bluebird days everyone!

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