Bluebirds of San Diego County

Bluebird Nestboxes

Bluebird hanging box by CM Killebrew Male Western Bluebird with nestlings by V. Elmore Bluebird slot box by CM Killebrew

Nestbox Location

Western Bluebirds are attracted to habitat such as open forests, parklands with scattered oaks or pine trees, orchards where there is no pesticide spraying, or large mowed lawns with mature trees. They also do well in urban parks, golf courses, and even cemeteries. These open areas with low vegetation allow them to easily see and hunt insects. Location is important. Place boxes in open spaces with scattered trees. If you put up a nestbox in an area of dry or dense shrubbery and trees, you will get wrens, flycatchers and titmice, not bluebirds. Also avoid placing boxes in areas where aggressive non-native House Sparrows are present.

Ideally, the nestbox should have some trees or shrubs nearby to provide perches from which to hunt, and for the young to fly to when they are ready to fledge. The entrance of the nestbox should face away from prevailing winds and rain. In San Diego County, California the opening is best oriented north-east to south-east. And placing a box in the shade or partial shade of a tree helps reduce the temperature inside the box during the hot summer months.

When breeding, Western Bluebirds have territories of about 3 acres and will protect and defend them from other bluebirds. Western Bluebirds do not usually allow other bluebirds to nest within about 300 yards, so space nestboxes accordingly. To reduce territorial fighting, it is better to space nestboxes farther apart than too close together; and place them so that the occupants can't see one another.

Hanging bluebird box by CM Killebrew Male Western Bluebird by V. Elmore top-opening bluebird box by CM Killebrew

Nestbox Construction

There are many different designs for bluebird nestboxes. Choose a nestbox that is made of wood for good insulation from heat and cold, and has an entrance hole of 1-9/16 inches in diameter so that Western Bluebirds on the larger end of the spectrum aren't excluded from using the nestbox while still preventing starlings from using it. The diameter of the interior floor should be at least 5 by 5 inches for Western Bluebirds. And there should be 6 to 7 inches from the bottom of the entrance hole to the floor to keep eggs and nestlings out of reach of scrub-jays or crows that might poke their heads into the nestbox and try to snatch them. If the wood of the box is very smooth, it is a good idea to cut grooves into the wood below the inside entrance hole to help nestlings get a foothold as they attempt to fledge. The wood (cedar or pine) should be at least 3/4 inch thick to provide adequate insulation from the sun. If you live in areas of the county where summer temperatures are regularly over 90 degrees, then you should add 1/4 to 1/2 inch ventilation holes in the top of the sides of the box; or design a box with 1/2 inch space gaps between the top of the sides and the roof; and consider placing the box where it will get shade from the afternoon sun. The roof should overhang the entrance hole at least 1 to 2 inches to keep out rain and shade the entrance. In order to monitor the box, it will also need to open either from the front, side, or top. To extend the life of the wood, paint the outside of the nestbox with water-based paint or apply a coat of 100 percent pure Tung oil. And be sure to sand the entrance hole smooth on both sides to eliminate any splinters.

pole-mounted bluebird nestbox by CM Killebrew Bluebird hanging box by CM Killebrew pole-mounted bluebird box by CM Killebrew

Nestbox Mounting

Mount the nestbox on a pole or hang it in a tree. Be sure to place the box so that you can easily monitor it regularly.

In San Diego County, we don't have a lot of problems with climbing predators like raccoons or opossum. That's because the riparian habitat that supports these animals is disappearing, and also because we still have large predators (mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats and foxes) which help keep their populations in check. Nor do we have climbing black rat snakes, which are so prevalent in the south-east. So hanging a nestbox in a tree here is not the "invitation to disaster" that it might be in other parts of the country. Nestboxes that have been hung in trees for years here might only face problems with ants or earwigs (which can be controlled with a Tanglefoot guard) or from strong Santa Ana winds. Trees also provide needed shade during our hot summer months. However, mounting the box on a pole under the shade of a tree at a height of 5 to 6 feet also works very well.

Slot-boxes allow a bird cornered in the box (by a House Sparrow) to escape and survive. Slot-boxes also provide good air circulation; and do not require an entrance hole drill for construction. However, the wider opening does make it easier for scrub-jays and crows to poke their heads in and snatch nestlings.

Nestboxes can be put up any time of the year. In the fall the bluebirds will locate potential nest sites for the coming year, and during the winter they are often used as roost boxes by woodpeckers. In the spring and summer, bluebirds will use the boxes for nesting from late March to the beginning of August. Wearing gloves and a mask, remove the old nest and clean out the box after each brood.

Western Bluebird Nestbox by Coveside

Note: The Western Bluebird lays larger clutches of eggs than the Eastern Bluebird, and is a slightly larger bird. Western Bluebirds require an entrance hole of 1-9/16" and an inner chamber of 5 x 5 inches. Eastern Bluebird boxes are smaller with an entrance hole of 1-1/2" and an inner chamber of 4" x 4" - too small for Western Bluebirds.

Any nestbox can be converted into a hanging box. All that's required is an eyebolt fastened to the nestbox roof (apply caulk to seal and waterproof the hole) and two feet of 9-gauge galvanized wire. The bottom of the wire is bent to hook around the eyebolt and the top of the wire is bent into a smooth loop 6 to 7 inches in diameter.

F.Stille photo