How to Use Bluebird Houses

Eastern Bluebird on a birdhouse

bobistraveling / Flickr / CC by 2.0

Bluebirds are highly desirable backyard residents with their attractive plumage, insectivorous diets, and melodious songs. With the right bluebird house positioned properly to attract tenants, any birder can become a bluebird landlord.

Why Bluebirds Need Houses

All bluebirds are cavity-nesting species, and they need safe, secure locations to raise their broods. Unfortunately, they are not assertive, and more aggressive species can easily drive bluebirds out of prime nesting spaces. European starlings and house sparrows, both invasive species, will easily usurp nesting cavities, evicting and even injuring or killing bluebirds in the process. Bluebirds may also be subject to brood parasitism from brown-headed cowbirds, and young cowbird chicks can smother bluebird hatchlings and keep them from getting sufficient food and care. Continuing human development, particularly in the eastern bluebird's range, has removed many natural cavities these birds need for successful nests, making proper birdhouses even more critical.

House Dimensions

Choosing the right sizes for a bluebird house is essential to ensure that not only are the birds safe and comfortable, but that other species are less able to use the house and the bluebirds will not be molested.

  • Entrance hole: The entrance size is the most critical dimension for a safe, effective bluebird house. The hole should be 1 1/2 inches/3.8 centimeters in diameter for eastern and western bluebirds, though mountain bluebirds occasionally prefer slightly larger holes that are 1 9/16 inches/4.0 centimeters in diameter. Over time, holes gradually enlarge as edges are worn away by talons, inquisitive hatchlings, and general wear. It is wise to regularly repair the entrance hole with a sturdy block or plate to keep it at the appropriate size and keep larger, unwanted birds from investigating.
  • Entrance height: The entrance hole should be 6 to 10 inches/15 to 25 centimeters above the floor of the birdhouse. This ensures that growing hatchlings are not able to tumble out of the opening. This distance also provides enough space that predators cannot easily reach hatchlings or brooding adults from the outside. Adding rough scoring or a piece of mesh below the hole inside the house can help birds reach the entrance when they wish to exit, but it is not strictly necessary, as their talons are ideal for climbing inside the house.
  • Interior floor space: Bluebirds raise three to eight chicks in each brood, and a large brood of growing hatchlings can quickly become crowded if the house is too small. Ideally, the interior floor space of a bluebird house should measure 5x5 inches/12.7x12.7 centimeters to accommodate the entire brood snugly but without too much excess space that can chill hatchlings.
  • Total house height: The total height of a bluebird house can vary from 8 to 12 inches/20 to 30 centimeters. The rear of the house is usually slightly taller than the front, and the roof slopes down from the back to the front to provide cover and shade over the entrance. A smaller house is too easy for predators to access, and a taller house can be too difficult for young birds to exit when they are ready to leave the nest safely.

It is easy to use the proper dimensions when building a birdhouse, but birders who prefer to purchase birdhouses should carefully measure first to be sure the size and proportions are ideal for bluebirds.

House Placement

Even a perfectly sized house will be of little use if bluebirds don't like where it is positioned. Proper habitat is critical, and open woodlands and forest edges along golf courses, in parks, near pastures, or adjacent to farmlands are ideal places to encourage nesting bluebirds. They will nest in backyard houses as well, provided there is sufficient open space for foraging and nearby perches to use.

A bluebird house should be mounted on a pole or post roughly 4 to 6 feet/1.2 to 1.8 meters above the ground in a relatively open area, with the entrance facing a large tree or shrub 25 to 100 feet/7.6 to 30.4 meters away. That vegetation will provide convenient foraging for adults, and it is a safe and reachable escape for fledglings when they first leave the nest. If more than one house is to be used, they should be positioned roughly 100 yards/92 meters apart to give birds adequate space to feel secure. Baffles are essential on poles or posts to deter birdhouse predators, and further protect both the adults and nestlings.

Because bluebirds will use birdhouses as winter roosting spots, there is no best time to put out houses for them—anytime is good. Bluebirds begin investigating potential nesting sites as early as late February, so houses should be clean, repaired, and available for nesting birds by February 15. Once a house is mounted, it should be inspected regularly but can be left out year-round for roosting birds.

Other Helpful Tips

Bluebirds can be wary and may take a few seasons to become accustomed to a house and choose it for a nesting site. If no bluebirds are showing an interest in your house, there are several steps you can take to encourage them to take up residence.

  • Leave the house unpainted or choose a light tan, natural shade. Do not paint the interior or the entrance rim, where paint chips could endanger hatchlings.
  • Provide grass clippings, pine needles, small twigs, and similar nesting materials nearby for easy nest construction.
  • Remove any perches that could serve as handholds for opportunistic predators. If desired, carve a few striations beneath the entrance hole to provide a better grip for bluebirds' talons.
  • Avoid nearby insecticide use and consider offering mealworms or suet (crumbles, shreds or other small chunks) for adults to use as a quick, easy food source for a hungry brood.
  • Clean the birdhouse after each brood to encourage adults to raise additional chicks in the same location, which will further cement their attachment to the site.
  • Make the habitat more attractive to bluebirds with a nearby birdbath large enough to accommodate several guests.

While it may take some time before bluebirds begin to use a specific house, they can be loyal residents and will return year after year to raise new families in the same birdhouse. Once you have these beautiful residents in your yard, it will be a rewarding and enjoyable experience to be a bluebird landlord.