We love our bluebirds. Doesn’t everybody? Gorgeous, mild-mannered, and insectivorous. What’s not to like?
In early February of this year, we began seeing Eastern Bluebirds hanging around our vineyard as in most years. Some days we saw small flocks of bluebirds; as many as 10 or 12 individuals. In years past, the bluebirds would begin courtship and nest-building in February. We almost always had both of our bluebird houses occupied with bringing off young by March. But not this year.
We haven’t seen a bluebird since before the Winter Storm Uri that hit us from Feb. 11-19. Did they all freeze to death? Or did they anticipate the cold and move away to avoid it?
Sadly, it seems it was the former. When it appeared that many species of wildlife perished in the extreme cold, iNaturalist began accepting records of wildlife deaths. Their documentation indicated that some birds and bats did not fare well during the prolonged cold. Disturbing as it was to observe, the information needed to be recorded. Bluebirds were found huddled and frozen in bluebird houses. More appalling were the piles of dead Mexican Free-tailed Bats that had been overwintering under bridges throughout Texas.
Bird lovers and Texas Master Naturalists were deeply saddened. As soon as we heard of the tragedy of the nest boxes, we checked our bluebird boxes. We unscrewed the front panels of the boxes with our hearts in our throats. Thankfully, there were no casualties in our boxes. But many found the opposite.
Texas naturalists documented 93 Eastern Bluebird deaths due to the storm. This number seems like a lot, and indeed it is a substantial total of individuals. I suspect many more bluebirds and other birds succumbed. Their bodies may have been scavenged by mammals and vultures trying to survive themselves.
Historically, the Eastern Bluebird has had its ups and downs. Settlers moving west across North America opened up forests and cleared land. Orchards, farmland and open woodlands provided ideal habitats for the bluebird. They thrived in the eastern half of the continent until the 1930s. At that time, increasing urbanization, pesticide use and the influx of two non-native bird species began to affect bluebird populations. European Starlings and House Sparrows, both cavity-nesters, competed strongly for the nest sites favored by the bluebirds. Abandoned woodpecker nests, rotted out wooden fence posts, and even birdhouses (often more decorative than functional) became scarce as the starlings and House Sparrows bullied their way into these sites. By 1970, the Eastern Bluebird was in sharp decline.
Fortunately, conservationists came to the aid of the popular bird. As early as 1934, Thomas Musselman created a “bluebird trail” of bluebird houses set up on fence posts along a road. House plans for bluebird-specific nest boxes gave bird lovers everywhere a means to help the birds. The simple expedient of making the nest box entrance hole exactly to bluebird requirements has restricted starlings and House Sparrows from taking over. As more and more people became aware of the plight of bluebirds and erected nest boxes, the bird population began to grow again.
In recent decades, Breeding Bird Surveys have indicated a population increase of +178% in the Eastern Bluebird. This increase has mainly been due to human intervention. The current population estimate is 20 million.
Winter is hard on wildlife. Individuals of all species often starve or freeze to death. But in most cases, the populations of those species survive. Nature is resilient. Given time, the species will rebound.
The truth remains: we have no bluebirds as of this writing. Perhaps they did not freeze, but they are certainly gone. I was able to find only one iNaturalist record for living bluebirds in Bee County during March. The record was from a place not too far from us: west of Pettus. There is hope! I am confident we will have bluebirds before the summer is on us. I will be patient and trust in the resiliency of Mother Nature.