Did you know we have three species of bluebirds in Texas? In the eastern half of the state, we have breeding eastern bluebirds, and in the western part of the state, we have breeding western bluebirds.
They are very pretty birds with blue heads, backs, wings and tails and rufous on their breasts, but western bluebirds also have a little bit of rufous color on their upper back, which is how you can distinguish the two. Males are brighter blue than females so they can attract a mate.
Both nest in cavities and will readily take to boxes. You can often see these two bluebird species perched on power lines or fences as they hunt their primary food which is insects. They also eat berries from fruiting trees and shrubs.
So that’s two species; what is the third? Recently, I was in West Texas, and I got see the other species, the mountain bluebird.
They are gorgeous blue with no rufous like the other two species. Males are sky blue on the back and a bit lighter underneath and females are mostly gray with tinges of blue in the wings and tail.
During winter, mountain bluebirds gather into roaming flocks that go in search of fruiting junipers. They are not present in Texas every winter, but this is a good winter for them. We saw several flocks of 50 or more birds.
One of the flocks was foraging in a field with very short green ground cover. The bluebirds were all over the ground, and the contrast of the blue against the green was quite stunning. I wasn’t able to get a photo that conveyed how beautiful it was.
Unlike the other two species, mountain bluebirds often hover when hunting insects. They breed in the western U.S. at middle and higher elevations in open habitats with a few trees to provide cavities.
They will also readily take to nest boxes like the other two bluebird species. In all three species, the female builds the nest and incubates the eggs.
All bluebirds have to contend with competition for nesting cavities from swallows, nuthatches, woodpeckers, wrens and starlings, so providing nest boxes for them is valuable.
There are bluebird boxes up at Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, which has at least one pair and possibly more that nest there every spring. They raise two or three broods per year and are quite productive.
If you want to see them in action, come by in spring when they are nest building, incubating their eggs and feeding their young.
Sue Heath is the director of conservation research of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the en tire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.