ROOMS TO LET; Eastern Bluebirds Wanted

The male Eastern bluebird scouts a suitable starter home

My tenants have returned to Traveler’s Joy.  They’re highly transient, this lot, and while it may be true that beggars can’t be choosers, some of these beggars seem very picky about what’s available. 
On a relatively mild day back in January I climbed on a ladder to pull out the straw and feathers left behind in the boxes from last season, and scrubbed the stained interiors with a solution of diluted bleach to insure that no parasites or diseases carry over.  
In the new year, remove
last season's nests and
scrub the boxes with a solution
of water & bleach, 9 to 1.
The house sparrows that have fledged so many generations from the small box beneath the eaves of the front porch moved back in almost immediately.  They have also been hanging around the free-standing birdhouse in the garden, the one that housed a prolific pair of Eastern bluebirds when I first erected it five springs ago.  I would give anything to be able to evict the sparrows permanently and lure the bluebirds back, since the bluebirds are endangered natives and the house sparrows are most decidedly not.  Besides that, there is no sight on earth bound to quicken a winter-weary heart more thrillingly than the first flash of blue wings in a bare tree.  
That’s why I was delighted when I spotted a male bluebird perched on the ledge of the birdhouse two days ago.  When he showed up this morning with his less-glamorous mate in tow, standing guard on the finial while she sized up the digs, I allowed myself to be wildly hopeful.  However, I know the odds are against them.  The bluebirds are much more selective about where they nest, and despite the fact that the free-standing box (built to Audubon Society specifications, with a 1 ½" hole to deter larger birds) is ideally situated a few steps away from my organic vegetable garden, which in spring and summer abounds with berries, muscadine grapes, tomatoes, sweet peppers and earthworms, they are deterred by the proximity of myself, my husband and our rowdy dog Alice going to and from the front garden to the back. 
House sparrows favor the box on the

The sparrows have no such sensitivity.  They are a species introduced from Europe to New York in the mid-nineteenth century, intended to control insects that preyed on local crops.  Like all brilliant ideas that involve messing with a finely tuned ecosystem, this one backfired badly.  The birds reproduced so rapidly in North America that they began to crowd out native species. 
A house sparrow gets a head-start on
nesting, in a February snowstorm
Their mating season begins much earlier than most migrating natives, a fact I can attest to.  I have observed pairs take up residence in my nesting boxes as early as late January, when snow is still swirling through town, and have watched in amazement as they proceeded to crank out one squatty little brood of birds after another, faster than you can say Passer domesticus.  Another characteristic in their favor is that they aren’t as picky about where they live, preferring the comforting din of nearby humans.  Living so close to people, they are less at risk of predators, unless a housecat is quick enough to catch them.  (My cat sits on the porch salivating as the birds flit back and forth to the box and perch on the porch swing, but with one eye she rarely manages to snag her quarry).
For all these reasons, the house sparrows, with their ‘You snooze, you lose’ attitude, have the Darwinian edge over the more desirable bluebirds.  It’s likely that the sparrows will sneak back into the box when the bluebirds’ backs are turned, as they have done before, and will kick out my elegant blue tenants. 
Tough little interlopers
Native songbird advocates advise getting tough by removing the nests of invasive interlopers like the house sparrows and finches, but I know I haven’t got the stomach for ornithological eugenics (not this season, at least), so I’ll continue rooting for the bluebirds and keeping their environment as peaceful as I can with high hopes they settle in.
Meanwhile, I’ve hung the beautiful orchard mason bee-house my husband bought me in Old Salem, facing east for the benefit of the sun's warming effect on hatching bees, as instructed.  (Refer to my May 9, 2013, blog post, “Bee Aware,” for more about this non-colonizing species of pollinators, also known as blue orchard bees.)  On that side of the garden shed the rainwater has always drained slowly, so much so during this soggy winter just past that I pulled out what I had growing there and replaced it with a large division of Iris virginica, the native blue-flag that grows happily in standing water and very heavy clay.  The iris has settled in wonderfully, flaunting its purple-based foliage that is the hallmark of spring growth for iris descended from riverbank natives.
Nesting box for orchard mason bees
I’m hoping that the mud and shallow water forming the iris’ habitat will help to attract the female mason bees, who collect mud and bring it back to hollow reeds, woodpecker holes in trees, or sections of bundled bamboo stalks, which is what my house is made of. Here they lay their young atop provisions of nectar and pollen before sealing the eggs off in mud-walled compartments.  (This is where they get their common name as ‘masons.’)
The new generation of mason bees starts hatching and emerging from the reeds around the time the redbud blooms in the Carolinas, which is happening right now in glorious profusion.  If I’m successful at attracting any mason bees this season, the latest generation of pollinators should start the process of mating, laying and sealing up their young within the next couple of weeks.  I plan to keep out the welcome mat, or in their case, the mud puddle.

The life-cycle of the mason bee is synchronized with the redbud
I spied a brown thrasher kicking up the duff around my raspberry canes this morning, and the red-capped woodpeckers have been scurrying up and down the big maples in the front yard since early February.  I haven’t heard a catbird cry yet, but it’s early still for these secretive gray migrants.  They prefer the dense woods and blackberry thickets at the edge of the meadow that borders our garden, which is also where we watch for the young rabbits to emerge at dusk, bounding in pairs across the uncut grass and nibbling the wild onions.
Male robins have set up camp in the big trees on our southern boundary and are driving my husband berserk by perching on the side mirrors of our cars and charging the rivals they see reflected in the mirrors.  This form of mortal combat involves the ejection of great quantities of liquid waste, with the ardent birds covering our car doors in streaks of hardened ka-ka studded with feathers that has to be cleaned off every morning before we can drive to work. I know Shakespeare wrote that “Men are April when they woo…” but in the case of these puffed-up suitors our paint jobs would appreciate a little less wooing and a lot more wisdom.  I suppose that will come soon enough.  Spring, and romance, are seasons sometimes made sweeter for being short-lived.

Mr. and Mrs.

If you live in the Carolinas and are interested in learning more about attracting mason bees to your garden, download the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension fact sheet: “How to Raise and Manage Orchard Mason Bees for the Home Garden,” by Stephen Bambara, Extension Entomologist.