Sunday, June 5, 2011

Our Bluebird Quintuplets

Mark gets ready to band
the Nixon quints

There is lots of action at Meadow Glenn these days. Our quintuplets are doing well—eating regularly and rapidly growing both in size and feathers.

Our quints are baby bluebirds. A bluebird pair chose our front-yard bluebird box as their nesting site this spring.  Four weeks ago, Mark Wallace, whom we call “Our Bluebird Guy,” announced that the box contained five light-blue eggs. Then for about two weeks, the parent bluebirds brought insects to their brood of five every few minutes from sunrise to sunset—and occasionally carrying away the bird equivalent of dirty Huggies.

We think Mark is a neighborhood hero. He monitors nesting boxes in Howard County and a few neighborhoods in nearby counties—more than 600 boxes. He visits some of the boxes as many as six to eight times over the nesting season, and he’s been doing it for 40 years.

Why? “It’s just my contribution,” he answered.

Mark checks the condition of the boxes in early spring. When nesting begins, he monitors more closely. His years of experience give him a pretty good idea of when the eggs will hatch and when the young birds will fledge—leave the box on their first flights.

That’s why Mark came on a recent Friday afternoon. He wanted to band the young bluebirds before they fledged, and he was concerned that he might have waited a day or two too long and they might have left.

Mark removed the screw that holds the top on the box, and mounted the five-gallon bucket he carries as his ladder, and looked in.

“I’ll have to be careful. I don’t want to have to chase and catch one that decides to take off now.”

Mark reached in, and brought out a nestling, which he held gently in his left hand. The bird was calm.

“Female,” Mark said, and he attached a numbered band on the bird’s right leg. He put the baby back into the box, to one side, to help him keep track of which birds had been banded.

How does he know females from males? Baby females have much less blue in their feathers.

“Female,” Mark said, as he repeated the process.

One of the three males
“Male,” he said, and the wing feathers of the nestling in his hand were much bluer at the tips.

“Male,” he said again.

“Male,” he said for the last time. Three males, two females—the Nixon Bluebird Quints.

“When do you think they’ll leave?” I queried.

“They could leave today if they wanted,” Mark replied.

Saturday evening the parent bluebirds still were taking food into the box. On Sunday all was quiet. The flights had ended. The nest was empty. But now I hear a delightful sound, the “Cheer, cheer” songs of seven bluebirds. I hope they’re saying, “Let stay here at Meadow Glenn and search the gardens for our favorite insects to eat.”

One day soon Mark will drive his gray Ford pickup down our driveway, park, and walk over to the bluebird box. He’ll open it and clean out the old nest, so the box will be ready for the bluebirds—or another pair—to start building a new nest. Some pairs will nest three times in one year.

Most of the boxes he monitors and the birds he bands are bluebirds, but his nesting list is much longer: tree swallows, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, even great crested flycatchers and wood ducks.

When Mark finished banding the Nixon Bluebird Quints, he looked at this watch, said he had to leave to go to work in 15 minutes, and walked across the lawn to the box on the fence by the Gabels’ swimming pool.

“Three females, two males—about two days younger than yours,” he said, when he returned to his truck. “Not bad—five females, five males in the two boxes.”

Mark looked at his watch again. “I’ve got to get going.”

Thank you, Mark, Our Bluebird Guy.


  1. Good article Bob. I;ve got three boxes on my property, with one bluebird pair, a pair of titmice and one pair of English sparrows.

  2. We've gone to three boxes also, Kent. The bluebirds and tree swallows, both very defensive of their territories, fight over a box, and the losers, usually the bluebirds, move on to a second box. So far another species hasn't staked out the third, though we've seen chicadees and titmice checking out the quarters.

  3. I find that using monofilament fishing line on the bluebird box helps to deter certain birds (especially sparrows) that otherwise raid and displace bluebirds. Here's a link:

  4. Over the years I have enjoyed bluebirds nesting in my yard and love to see them sitting on fence posts around my vegetable garden looking for tasty food. I have about 7 boxes on my property and 2 of those have bluebirds families in them.