When I say bluebirds, you would be correct in asking if I am referring to the Western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), the Mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides), or the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis).
All three species can be found in New Mexico. Both the Western and mountain bluebirds nest in the state with populations of both species increasing in the winter as birds from further north migrate into the state for the winter. An isolated resident population of Eastern bluebirds can be found in the very southwest corner of the state. Eastern bluebirds also migrate into the eastern half of the state in the winter.
The bluebird is well-named, for he wears a coat of the purest, richest, most gorgeous blue on its back, wings, and tail; no other North American bird better deserves the name, for no other flashes before our admiring eyes so much brilliant blue! It has been said that he carries on his back the blue of heaven and the rich brown of freshly turned earth on his breast (at least in the case of the Western bluebird); but who has ever seen the bluest sky as blue as the bluebird's back? (The quote describing the Eastern bluebird is from the Arthur Cleveland Bent series on the "Birds of North America.")
Bluebirds are usually found in fields, open woodlands, parks or along golf courses or other open areas, including suburban locations with open spaces and scattered trees of the American West. In the case of the Western bluebird, brilliant blue-and-rust colored bluebirds sit on low perches and swoop lightly to the ground to catch insects.
Deep blue, rusty, and white, males are considerably brighter than the graybrown, blue-tinged females. In the mountains, they are found in clearings and meadows. The mountain bluebird is well-known for its hovering flight as it "hawks" for insects. This bird was one of my fondest memories of living at the Manitou Experimental Forest near Woodland Park, Colo.
My good friend Diane always admired how the male would feed the female as she sat on the nest, and was impressed with how they could build a nest while entering such a small hole! This small thrush nests in holes in trees or nest boxes and often gathers in small flocks to feed on insects or berries, giving their quiet, chortling calls.
The Eastern bluebird has a musical flight call that often reveals its presence. Bluebirds can be attracted to peanut butter mixes, suet and fruit. Raisins soaked in hot water to soften them are well-received, as are meal worms (a special favorite of the bluebird). If you manage a bluebird house, watch for house sparrows trying to use the nest box and immediately remove any house sparrow nesting material. All three species of bluebirds nest in New Mexico, although the nesting range of the Eastern bluebird is very limited.
One, two and sometimes three broods of four to six chicks may be raised. Eggs are pale blue or rarely, white. According to the book "Pueblo Birds & Myths" by Hamilton A. Tyler, there are separate names in most Pueblo languages for the Western and the mountain bluebird, and at Zuni, the ceremonial usage of the two species seems to be distinct.
Both are winter birds because they descend to the lowlands along with the snow and the cold of that season. But they also make their way back toward the mountains in the spring with the intent of breeding at higher elevations. In spring they flock together in local migrations and are thus more visible.
The passage of large numbers in spring and again in the fall makes them excellent symbols of transition between the seasons.
Steve Tapia is a retired wildlife biologist who worked 23 years with the U.S. Forest Service and four years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.