Wintering bluebirds charm valley birdwatchers

During the extraordinary season for rare winter birds from mountain habitats that this has been, some of our slightly-more-frequent but still irregular visitors may have understandably received less attention. With the sound of their cheery, bell-like “kew kew” calls or a sudden flash of brilliant cobalt blue, however, western bluebirds are apt to wrest at least a bit of notice and bring immediate smiles and sighs to their admirers.

Occurring throughout most of the western mountains, including a small population in the Organs, these beauties usually reside in middle-elevation habitats such as pinyon-juniper grasslands or open ponderosa pine woodlands. Because they nest in tree cavities or woodpecker holes, they require ample standing dead wood, but prefer openings and edges with plenty of low perches from which they can hunt for all manner of insects, especially grasshoppers, caterpillars, and ground beetles.

Western bluebirds gather at a Mesilla Valley birdbath.
Western bluebirds gather at a Mesilla Valley birdbath.

In fall and winter as insect sources dwindle, berries become predominant in the diet, and in years of a good crop of juniper fruits, the birds may stay close to home. In poor years, however, they’re likely to descend in elevation in search of better pickings in nearby foothills and lowlands, and mistletoe clumps in cottonwoods and screwbean mesquites along the Rio Grande rank high in their regard, bringing small groups of these delightful birds to the Mesilla Valley every few years.

When the bluebirds first arrive, usually during November, they seem to prefer mistletoe berries above all else, though they readily visit birdbaths and other water sources between feeding sessions. Later in the season, they may also consume sumac and hackberry fruits, and backyards that feature some of these native plants may well host not only western bluebirds but robins, hermit thrushes, mockingbirds, thrashers, and many other wintering species as well. Plantings of any of the native junipers – one-seed, alligator, and Rocky Mountain – can also offer valuable natural foods to bluebirds, scrub-jays, titmice, and others that normally hail from those mountain habitats.

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Fruit-eating birds are apt to get thirsty, so dependable, well-maintained water features are perhaps the easiest way to attract bluebirds that happen to be in the vicinity, and can be extremely beneficial to a wide variety of birds, particularly during times of severe drought – our new normal, unfortunately, and a likely contributor to the failure of natural food crops like juniper berries that brought the birds to our backyards.

Western bluebirds have two cousins that also appear in our area but much less frequently: eastern bluebirds occasionally winter in the area, too, in similar habitats but in smaller numbers than western bluebirds, and very rarely nest in old woodpecker cavities along the Rio; and mountain bluebirds, the males of which are a stunning, allover azure blue, tend to winter in more open habitats like grasslands and pastures.

Any of these beautiful birds is a treat for the eyes and can take one’s breath away when light hits that intense blue color just right, and the unpredictability of their visits makes them that much more appreciated. So much about enjoying and learning about birds is bittersweet, though – a seesaw between concern for the conditions that brought the wayward birds to us and just appreciating the enchantment of the moment.

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Wintering bluebirds charm valley birdwatchers