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Ann Wright: A cheer for the bluebirds

January is a good time to begin planning more bird-friendly gardens. To encourage bluebirds, as well as a variety of other wonderful birds, adding desirable habitat to a garden will draw a number of wonderful visitors to your area.
Photo courtesy All About Birds

One of the most gratifying aspects of gardening is bringing nature alive – a coexistence between wildlife and the gardens we cherish. Birds – my morning chirp! I love the birds in my garden – even the little ones that devour my sunflower leaves!

Bluebirds are particularly special. As part of the group of flycatchers, there is something quite intriguing about them – their behavior and their striking appearance. Thriving in areas of oak woodlands, they swoop lightly to the ground to catch insects but won’t cause a ruckus by moving all the mulch out of the garden bed, making a mess of the patio. They can often be seen sitting on a fence adjacent to an open field, or in areas where dead trees provide nesting places or good perching opportunities. Sometimes they can be seen in small gatherings to feed on insects or berries.

The male western bluebird (Sialia mexicana) is considerably brighter in color than female of the species with bright blue top feathers and a rust-colored “vest”. Females and juveniles have muted grey-blue top feathers, dull orange-colored breasts and blue tint to tail and tips of wings. Bluebirds make nests in tree holes, or in nesting boxes created just for them.



Around our Penn Valley area, there are a number of bluebird nesting boxes – on posts near oak trees facing pasture land, and also in our local park. Local boxes are tended by neighbors who clean out the boxes each year and monitor the boxes for activity. Since loss of habitat is a primary threat to bluebirds, the addition of a nesting box to your garden will help attract bluebirds or, perhaps another species to your yard. The surprise is the reward!

There are places to purchase a ready-to-go bluebird box, or perhaps building one could be a new-found hobby. This is a good time to put up bird nesting boxes, before breeding season. Bluebird boxes require a 1½ -inch opening and a specific space in which to build the nest. Boxes should be placed about four to six feet high, facing toward open fields or forested areas. Nesting behavior can start in early spring but the majority of nesting activity occurs between May and the end of July.



There are a number of sites online with instructions for building nesting boxes. The website of the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA offers plans and instructions.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, “Nestwatch.org” has information about bluebird nesting boxes as well as those of many other birds.

January is a good time to begin planning more bird-friendly gardens. To encourage bluebirds, as well as a variety of other wonderful birds, adding desirable habitat to a garden will draw a number of wonderful visitors to your area. Provide food, water and protection for birds. In general, smaller garden birds eat seed, insects, and caterpillars. Larger birds eat frogs, fish and other animals. Native plants support many insects which helps attract more birds. Your garden may even become an island of habitat for migrating birds. Our local areas may attract a number of California native bird species, such as California thrashers, western bluebirds, American robins, northern flickers, Nuttall’s woodpeckers, mockingbirds, cedar waxwings and scrub jays. Of course, wild game birds such as turkey and California quail are prevalent at different times of the season. Here are some other tips for creating a bird-friendly garden:

• Increase leaf litter by keeping leaves on the ground. This provides habitat and forage areas for the birds as well as nutrients for the soil as leaves break down. Leaf mulch also helps plants because moisture is kept at ground level.

• Plant layers within the garden. The greater diversity of food and layers in your garden, the greater diversity of birds that will visit. For example, ground cover plants such as Dudleya or dwarf yarrow, followed by taller native sages, California fuchsia, and penstemon is a way to start new areas. Adding taller shrubs such as Toyon, California Coffeeberry and other understory shrubs will add beauty to the garden as well as valuable habitat for birds. Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra) can be enjoyed by both people and birds!

• Water – birds like shallow water. If using a fountain, a recirculating pump will prevent mosquitos from breeding, and the bubbling water is attractive to finches and other birds. Bird baths can be deeper in one area for bigger birds. (Change the water a couple of times a week to prevent mosquitos and disease.)

The Master Gardeners of Nevada County have public workshops planned for the beginning of the season focusing on pollinators and native plants. The workshop, “Pollinators – Encourage these Vital Little Critters” will be presented on Feb. 13. On Feb. 27, “Bringing Native Plants into Your Garden, Part 1” will be presented, followed by part 2 on March 6, 2021. Until we are allowed to present in-person workshops, presentations will be online, via Zoom beginning at 9 a.m. Instructions and Zoom access will be posted on our public website at: http://ncmg.ucanr.org/ . Master Gardeners are also live on the radio most Saturdays on KNCO radio, 830- AM from 10 a.m. to noon.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.


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