Friday, July 17, 2015

Nesting Bluebirds -- Bugs for the Babies!

Text and photos © 2015 Adele Wilson, author of Bonding with the Barn Swallows

The Bluebird eggs have hatched!  My estimation is that the hatching date was July 5th.  That would be the date of the hatching of the first egg.  Bluebird eggs are said to hatch within twenty-four hours of each other, although the last-laid egg might take a little longer.  The general rule is that all of the eggs will hatch within 48 hours of the first egg hatching, unless any of them are infertile. 

If you are interested in knowing how I estimated the hatching date, you can read the Technical Section below.

There were four eggs in the nest, and now there are four Bluebird babies.  I do not check the inside of the box very frequently for fear of stressing the parent Bluebirds.  The last time I checked, which was on Wednesday, July 15th, the babies had light-colored “pin feathers” on them.  Assuming a hatching date of July 5th, the first-hatched baby was ten days old at that time.

I have not photographed the babies, but if you go to the following site and look at Figure 5, you can see approximately what the babies looked like on July 15th  Here’s another photo of 10-day-old Bluebirds:

As the babies grow larger, they need increasing amounts of food and higher frequencies of feeding.  Their food consists of bugs, more technically called insects, that the babies’ parents bring to the nest box.  On the right is a photo of Mama Bluebird with what might be a grasshopper in her beak.  She is preparing to feed at least one baby through the nest box hole when she feels that it is safe to do so.  The blossoms in the background are on a Mimosa tree.

Both parents have been diligently hunting for insects and bringing them to the box to feed to the babies.  The insects that Bluebirds eat are largely those that live on the ground.  A Bluebird will perch on a fence, a utility wire, or a building's roof and focus on the ground below.  Once it sees an insect, it will quickly swoop to the ground, capture the insect, and immediately return to its higher post to either digest the insect or save it to feed its youngsters.

The parent Bluebirds closely guard the nest box and for good reason.  We have roaming, feral cats around here that eat birds.  The parent Bluebirds probably also consider me to be a potential predator because they are extremely cautious about feeding their babies when I am taking pictures of them.

The photo on the left shows both Mama and Papa Bluebird on top of the box with insects in their beaks.  They are awaiting a safe time to feed their babies.

Mama Bluebird is more cautious than Papa Bluebird and likes to wait until I am out of the way before she feeds her babies.  I have very few photos, if any, of Mama feeding the babies though the nest box hole.

Finally, after a few minutes of both Mama and Papa Bluebird perching on top of the nest box, Papa Bluebird deemed it safe enough to feed his insect to the babies inside the box.  Mama stayed on top of the box awaiting her turn, as shown in the photo below.

The photo on the right, taken early in the morning, shows Papa Bluebird on top of the box holding an insect, a large one at that!  Since I was there with my camera, he was watching me to be certain that I would not interfere with his feeding of the babies.

I wondered how many babies that large insect would feed.  Interestingly, male Bluebirds are said to show preference for feeding the female babies instead of the males.  It is speculated that the Papa Bluebird would rather have the females grow up and be healthy because, unlike the males, they will not interfere with his breeding territory next spring.  Instead, the females will go off with their own mates into another territory.  In short, male Bluebirds compete for breeding territories, which are usually five or six acres in size, but they can sometimes range up to twenty acres.

Much of this information presented here can be found in the delightful book, Eastern Bluebird by Gary Ritchison, which I heartily recommend if you would like to find out more about Eastern Bluebirds.  The book is well illustrated with superb photos and contains a great deal of information.

After perching on top of the box and holding the huge insect in his beak, Papa Bluebird proceeded to feed the babies.  As the photo to the left shows, Papa landed on the front of the box and fed the insect to the babies inside. 

Immediately afterward, Papa actually went inside the box.  I was wondering what he was doing inside of the box, but a moment later I discovered what it was.

Papa Bluebird stayed inside the box for a short time and then exited from the box, flying away to hunt for another insect.  The photo below shows him flying from the box.  As to what Papa had been doing inside the box, the answer is shown in the photo.

If you look closely at the photo, you will see that Papa had something white in his beak.

Something white?  It was actually a form of a diaper.  It is called a “fecal sac” and is from one of the baby Bluebirds.  When the babies reach a certain age, it becomes the job of the parents to remove these sacs from the nest.

A parent will take the sac from the nest box and fly far away from the box.  The parent will drop the sac in a place where predators will not be able to associate the scent of the sac with the location of the nest box.  And that is what Papa Bluebird did.  I watched him fly across the adjacent field and out of sight with the sac still in his beak.

Technical Section

Estimating Eastern Bluebirds’ hatching dates is based on observations of the nest and certain knowledge of Bluebird behavior and breeding patterns.  It is necessary to know how many eggs are laid and when the female finishes laying them.  Here are my observations:

Afternoon of June 17th – no eggs in nest
Afternoon of June 21st – four eggs in nest
Afternoon of June 29th – four eggs in nest

Ornithological observations have shown that, once a female Bluebird starts laying eggs, she will lay one egg each morning.  This is also true of many other birds.  Bluebirds tend to lay their eggs well after sunrise, often between 8 and 10 a.m.

Also from observations, it is known that the female will usually start incubating her eggs either on the day that she lays her last egg or on the previous day.

Since no eggs were in the nest on the afternoon of June 17th, the female had not yet laid any eggs.  However, on June 21st there were four eggs in the nest, indicating that she had laid her first egg on June 18th, her second on June 19th, her third on June 20th, and her fourth on June 21st.

Since there were still only four eggs in the nest on June 29th, the female stopped laying after she laid her last egg on June 21st.  She therefore began incubating her eggs either on June 21st or on June 20th. 

For the purpose of my calculation, I assumed that the female began incubating on June 21st. That is because I did not notice the female peeking her head out of the nest box prior to the morning of June 21st. Peeking her head out of the box would have indicated that she had been in the box all night keeping the eggs warm. Instead, early each morning prior to June 21st, between about 6 and 7 a.m., I observed the male landing on top of the box, the female flying from the fence to the top of the box to join him, after which the male would enter the box with the female following him. The male would then fly out of the box, leaving the female inside. I interpreted this behavior as the male escorting the female inside the box to make sure it was safe to lay an egg.

Since the average incubation period for Eastern Bluebirds is fourteen days, I assumed that the eggs began hatching on July 5th, which was fourteen days from June 21st.

Based on the assumption that the oldest baby was ten days old on July 15th, I estimate that babies will start fledging (leaving the nest) sometime around July 23rd. This is based on the average fledging date for Eastern Bluebirds being the date when they are eighteen days old. However, this can vary up to twenty-one days. On the other hand, the material that I have read about Eastern Bluebird nesting in this region of the U.S. has indicated an average of 18 days.

Stay tuned to discover the fate of the babies!  And please pray with me that they will be safe once they leave the nest.  To follow this blog, you can enter your email address on the upper right of the page.
If you have found this story interesting, you might want to check out my book, Bonding with the Barn Swallows.  Its 117 photos include closeups of the baby Barn Swallows that were hatched on my porch during 2011 and 2012.  There are also photos of the parent swallows guarding the nest and feeding their young.  As an extra bonus, the book includes photos of five different juvenile Barn Swallows, just ten days after fledging.  You will be amazed at their varied markings.  The book describes how one special male Barn Swallow communicated to me by his body language on the utility wire and how, only two days later, I discovered what he was trying to tell me.  To find out more about the book and read a preview, just click on the image to the right.





  1. So they did start to hatch the day I made a comment in Your previous post :-) Beautiful birds! They would have found plenty to eat here in my garden if we had had them here :-) but the birds already nesting here do a good job too :-)

    Have a great day!

    1. Yes indeed, Christer, you were so intuitive and so correct about the hatching date! I didn't publicize the hatching date because I was afraid that any neighbors who would get word of it might disturb the babies. And the nesting ended up being successful, with the babies leaving the nest on July 22nd, which I wrote about in the following post at Thanks so much for your comment!