Bluebirds Love Mealworms
Honey, is this oatmeal fresh?
Here's a secret. Bluebirds love mealworms. They're crazy about them. I was fretting, in spring, about whether the eastern bluebirds would adopt our new birdhouse. The birds landed on the wooden box once or twice and peered into the hole, but they didn't seem to be building there.
I told myself it was OK if the bluebirds found a better nesting cavity in the woods, but I longed for them to move into the birdhouse, where I could see from the kitchen and the front door. Then I heard that mealworms, which are usually sold as food for pet reptiles, would help persuade bluebirds to stay.
Two days later, 1000 mealworms arrived by UPS, in a small, screen-sided cardboard box. The mealworms were loose in there, most of them bunched up around the piece of raw potato included for food and moisture, with instructions to provide them with oatmeal or wheat bran as bedding.
Within an hour
The weather was cold and drizzly. I hadn't seen any bluebirds all day. I picked a dozen of the inch-long mealworms out of the box and carried them by hand to the birdhouse. They were dry and smooth, and although they tickled a bit when they wiggled, they weren't at all nasty to hold.
Whistling my poor imitation of a bluebird's song, I put the mealworms on top of the birdhouse and retreated to my kitchen. An hour later I noticed a female bluebird standing on the birdhouse roof. She cocked her head to study the pale yellow mealworms, and then she picked one up in her bill and swallowed it. After she'd consumed several, her mate flew in from the nearby trees, landed beside her, and ate some too.
I'd read that it might not be good for bluebirds to give them too many mealworms, so I restrained myself until evening to put out another supply. The female caught on fast. As soon as I opened the door and did my fake bluebird whistle, she came down from a treetop to a branch near the birdhouse, and she landed on it before I got back to my house.
Husband looks in fridge
My husband, Michael, is not enthusiastic about things that wriggle in the kitchen, but he adapted with surprising speed. When he looked in the refrigerator for snacks, he discovered an open bin of oatmeal and mealworms. He stirred the contents with a finger, looking at the larvae of 976 darkling beetles.
"For the bluebirds," I explained. "Don't worry. They can't crawl up the sides of the bin, and besides, they don't move much when they're cold."
I took good care of my mealworms, except for contributing a few of them every day to the bluebirds. On alternate weekends I brought their bin out of the fridge for a day and a night so they could warm up and feed. I put a fresh slice of apple or potato in their bin, and they consumed everything but the peel. When human guests appeared unnerved at the sight of writhing mealworms in a bin on my kitchen sink, I explained that they were my pets.
Bluebirds move in
Although I was not particularly consistent about feeding the bluebirds at the same time every day, they knew when the mealworms were imminent. They didn't come around when I was headed for my car or a walk, but if I stepped out of the house whistling, with mealworms in my hand, the two birds flew toward the birdhouse from wherever they were in the woods.
I experimented with how far I had to retreat from the birdhouse before they would come in. The female landed when I was ten feet away. More skittish, the male arrived only after the female was already eating.
One cool morning before I made the delivery, I looked out the living room window and saw the female bluebird perched on top of one of our feeders, eyeing me. Bluebirds aren't interested in millet, sunflower seeds, and thistle. I understood that she wanted mealworms, and clearly she understood where they came from. A few moments later, as I opened my door, she was waiting for me on the birdhouse.
Real estate deal clinched
On day three of the mealworm program, the female started carrying soft dry grass into the birdhouse. "The mealworms clinched the real estate deal," Michael commented. Soon I saw four pretty, sky-blue eggs inside.
When the eggs hatched, I started increasing the daily allotment of mealworms. The female shuttled them directly from birdhouse roof to nestlings below. The male at first flew with his beak full into the woods, returning after half a minute or so to feed the babies. Perhaps he was acting out an instinctive pattern, evolved to conceal from predators the fact that he was feeding young.
By the second day, he didn't bother to go all the way to woods before turning back to the nest. His woodsward feint grew shorter with each trip, until it became only a gesture of his head. After that he dropped directly from the roof to the birdhouse door.
The babies thrived and are on their own now. Of course, I cannot claim to know what bluebirds think. But a bluebird has looked me in the eye and communicated what she wanted. A wild, beautiful bird and I bridged a gap, to the immense satisfaction of us both.
-- Diane Cooledge Porter
Story first appeared in
Backyard Bird Newsletter, August, 2005.