In the greyest part of winter, on those days between snow and sunshine, when the skiing isn’t at its best or maybe even when it’s a blizzard on Bachelor, taking a walk in Tumalo, in an old gravel pit on a foggy morning, isn’t really a very exciting prospect. But then, a flash of blue catches my eye, and then another and another and all of a sudden I am standing in the field surrounded by a sweet little flock of Mountain Bluebirds. Like colorful sprinkles, these birds dot the landscape with brilliant blue.
Mountain bluebirds are graceful little birds. Medium-sized songbirds, their heads are large and round and their bodies chunky. The male is blue all over and the female is blue and mostly brown. They are about 6-7 inches in length and weigh little over ONE ounce.
They like open areas with short grasses and shrubs to hunt small insects and eat small fruits. Mountain bluebirds hunt from perches and drop to the ground to catch their prey--hover, then drop. They can also catch flies and other insects on the wing. These little birds need about 4 grams of food per day. That’s about 12% of their body weight, the equivalent of a 200 pound man eating 24 pounds of food per day!
The Mountain Bluebird builds nests in tree cavities and snags and they will accept nest boxes easily. Nesting occurs in March through August. The female bird builds the nest and defends it, while the male defends territory. The female usually lays 4-6 eggs and the eggs are pale blue. Mountain bluebirds are monogamous through the breeding season and have 2-3 broods per season.
The Mountain Bluebird is a short lived bird: 70% of the birds die before their first birthday. Adults live only a few years. The oldest Mountain Bluebird found was only six years old. These blue beauties also don’t handle temperatures below 20 degrees very well. It’s hard for them to find food if it’s too harsh outside.
I live in the perfect environment for watching these birds. Central Oregon's sagebrush and juniper steppe, mountain meadows, and ponderosa pine forests provide great habitat for mountain bluebirds. Closer to home, a nearby field filled with short grasses, sagebrush, and rabbit brush provides excellent viewing opportunities.
When you spot a mountain bluebird, listen to their “chuck and tew” calls and watch them flit. Mountain bluebirds seem to travel in little flocks. They perch quietly on the tops of the shrubs and then quickly fly a short distance to another shrub; they hide on the ground and hop right back up to the next bush. You can follow the little flock of bright blue from bush to bush and shrub to shrub for hours and hours. Enjoy their sweet song and thank them for the little bit of color and grace that they can give to an otherwise dull and grey winter day.
Sources: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: www.allaboutbirds.org, Birds of Oregon by Marshall, Hunter and Contreras.