Year of the Bird Series: March – Eastern Bluebird

Editor’s Note: 100+ bird organizations declared 2018 the “Year of the Bird” as it is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s ratification. Many are pledging to do 1 thing per month to help birds. As Ruthven Park National Historic Site has a bird banding station in collaboration with the Haldimand Bird Observatory, we are featuring one blog post per month on different birds! Below, you will find the third installment in this 12-part series.

Article by Bill Read (Eastern Bluebird Society)

The Eastern Bluebird is a cherished sight for birdwatchers across Ontario. It held a special place in the folklore of our early settlers who welcomed it as a true harbinger of spring. During the pre-settlement era, the Eastern Bluebird would have been a rare to uncommon sighting, limited as the species was to forest fire burn areas, clearings created by indigenous peoples and prairie edge openings.

Populations increased dramatically during the late 1700s and 1800s as settlers cleared the dense forest to plant crops and build farms. Fence rows were lined with tree stumps and split rails, creating ideal nest cavities for Eastern Bluebirds. These combined factors helped the species to become common to abundant in Southern Ontario and across Eastern North America in the late 1800s. With changes in agricultural practices and the introduction of House Sparrows around 1850 and European Starlings around 1890 populations of Eastern Bluebirds began to decline. Farms became more mechanized after 1945. Larger farms, fewer wooden posts, more t-bars and barb wire reduced the number of available nest cavities. House Sparrows in urban areas and starlings in rural areas began usurping bluebirds and other native cavity nesting birds from natural cavities. Populations continued to decline well into the 1970s. Weather related declines were not followed by rebounds to former levels within a few years. Concern around this time by the birding community resulted in the Ministry of Natural Resources declaring the Eastern Bluebird rare based on a COSEWIC (council on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada) report by Chris Risley in 1981. The Eastern Bluebird was never in any great danger of becoming extirpated from Ontario even though it had declined precipitously from its high point in the 1800s. It has a range that includes all of Southern Ontario and most of Northern Ontario above Thunder Bay and extending east and below  a straight line from Moossonee to the Manitoba border.

(tip: click on each photo above to enlarge it for a closer look)

Most of this concern was based on comparing present population levels with those in the late 1800s which would never have existed in the pre-settlement era. The first breeding bird atlas in 1987 showed clearly that there were a lot more bluebirds in the province than people realized. Warmer weather both during the nesting season and in their wintering areas and hundreds of predator proof well monitored nest box trails have helped the bluebird to increase its numbers from a low point in the late 1970s. The Eastern Bluebird was classified as not at risk in 1996 based on a COSEWIC report by Bill Read and Robert Alvo. It continues to do well across its range in Canada in large part to the thousands of well managed nest box trails. Recent long term trends for Eastern Bluebird from 1970-2015 show an annual increase of 1.94% for Canada and 1.28% for Ontario. In recent years it has been overwintering in greater numbers in Ontario. A record total of 925 Bluebirds were recorded on the 117 th ( 2016-2017 ) Christmas Bird Count mostly in the Carolinian areas above Lakes Ontario and Erie and as far north east as Rice Lake near Peterborough.  Its future is bright in Ontario. Indeed it is a conservation success story.

For more information on the Eastern Bluebird, how to successfully set up your own bluebird trail, and to read our newsletter, please go to the Ontario Eastern Bluebird Society website!