Two of Ohio's best known and most beloved birds are thrushes. One of them, the American robin, is a ubiquitous fixture in suburbia and nearly every other habitat. Robins often are the first bird one encounters upon stepping outside in the morning. The other thrush may be the recipient of more human assistance than any other bird species in the Buckeye State.
It is the eastern bluebird, which looks and acts so unthrushlike that some bluebird enthusiasts may not recognize its family ties. The other six species of thrushes that occur regularly in Ohio are habitual ground-feeders. Bluebirds, on the other hand, typically hunt prey from posts, small trees and other elevated perches.
Bluebirds have keen vision, and can spot grasshoppers, caterpillars and other small prey from distances of up to 130 feet. When a victim is spotted, the bluebird quickly flies to the spot and pounces. A male eastern bluebird is an avian work of art. Avid bluebirders insist the gorgeous shade of blue that paints a bluebird's topside is the prettiest color found in nature. They may be right. The rich blue is countered by deep cinnamon-brown below, and the contrast is striking.
Male eastern bluebird
Female bluebirds resemble a muted version of the male. Juvenile bluebirds are heavily speckled below, a trait that reveals their thrush family lineage: most thrushes are spotted below, at least when immature. Eastern bluebirds are unique among Ohio thrushes in that they nest in cavities. It's this habit that has forged the strong bond between bluebirds and people.
For cavity-nesting birds, the availability of suitable nest sites is always a pinch point. In the 1930s, one of America's premier ornithologists, Frank Chapman, predicted bluebirds would suffer due to increased competition with nonnative cavity-nesting European starlings. How right he was.
Starlings, along with the introduced house sparrow, began to greatly diminish bluebird populations by usurping bluebird nest sites. About the time of Chapman's gloomy prediction, Thomas Musselman of Illinois had discovered bluebirds would readily take to artificial nestboxes and, before long, Musselman had a strung a trail of more than 1,000 boxes. He met with great success, and the bluebird trail was born.
Jim McCormac is a naturalist with Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Today, there are tens of thousands of bluebird nestboxes in the eastern U.S. and Canada, and collectively they spawn a blizzard of bluebirds. Ohio is at the forefront of providing bluebird housing. In 2011, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project NestWatch reported Ohio bluebirders fostered 4,490 nesting attempts from their boxes - more than any other state.
Few animals light up a meadow like a bluebird.
The stunning males illuminate the summits of fence posts like Christmas ornaments, and their rich throaty warbles add music to the pasture. Thanks to the dedication of scores of bluebirders who build and maintain nestbox trails, Ohioans can enjoy more bluebirds than ever.