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Types of Blue Birds in NC: Bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, and Jays

TMHughes enjoys birding and mountain biking in North Carolina.

Learn more about these three vivid birds found in North Carolina, including their identifying features, diets, and songs.

Learn more about these three vivid birds found in North Carolina, including their identifying features, diets, and songs.

Three Common Blue-Colored Birds in North Carolina

Bluebirds and other birds with blue feathers are some of nature's most brilliantly colored animals. There are half a dozen or more blue-colored birds in North America, many of which can be found in North Carolina. This article takes a look at three of the most common blue birds in the state—the Eastern bluebird, indigo bunting, and blue jay—and how to identify them.

Bluebirds vs. Blue Birds

Not every bird with blue plumage is a bluebird. While the word "bluebird" refers to a specific group of birds in the thrush family (Turdidae), a "blue bird" simply refers to any bird that's colored blue. Once you learn a little about the various blue birds in the region, it is very easy to tell them apart. Size and shape are one clue; pattern is another. If you don't get a good look at the bird, you can also tell by its call.

Eastern bluebirds are a striking blue above balanced by a white belly and rufous chest.

Eastern bluebirds are a striking blue above balanced by a white belly and rufous chest.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

The Eastern bluebird has become a common sight across the southeastern U.S., not just in North Carolina. The popularity of the birds and their proclivity for nest boxes have made them a favorite for bird-watchers, nature lovers, and parks departments.

Coloration, Size, and Features

Eastern bluebirds are small members of the thrush family. They have small, round bodies, short tails, and sharp, pointy beaks. Eastern bluebirds are easily recognized by their vibrant blue heads and wings contrasted with striking rufous-colored chests.

The blue coloration extends down the bird's back to its wings and tail. The shade of blue can appear to change, depending on light and angle, from an electric blue all the way through a dull grey color. The rufous-brown chest coloration extends to the bird's shoulders and down its sides, leaving its belly a much lighter ivory shade. Females are lighter in hue but no less brilliant. The muted color of the females is offset by some bold blue streaks in their wings and tail.

Range and Habitat

Bluebirds can be commonly found year-round in the southern U.S. and central Mexico. In summer, some parts of the population will move north into New England, but there are no recognized migration patterns. Eastern bluebirds prefer a mix of scrubland and open areas where they can build their nests or perch high on a branch.

Diet and Feeding

These birds feed by swooping down on insects from above and will hunt prey on the ground, in the air, or on the sides of trees. In winter, bluebirds will feast on berries or other fruit when they can find it, and they will also come to feeder boxes. During the warm months, you're unlikely to see a bluebird at your feeder, but in winter they can be attracted with suet filled with dried fruit and fat.

Nesting

You can easily attract Eastern bluebirds with nest boxes. These birds will readily nest in a box, especially one built with them in mind. If boxes are not available, bluebirds will nest in old woodpecker holes or other cavities in trees or fence posts. The birds will return and reuse the same hole or box year after year, provided it is cleaned out.

The Eastern Bluebird's Call

The Audubon Society describes the Eastern bluebird's call as a "liquid and musical turee or queedle" and its song as a "soft melodious warble." A common mnemonic for remembering the sound of the bluebird's call is "cheer, cheerful, charmer."

The mountain bluebird and Western bluebird are easy to distinguish from the Eastern bluebird via their color patterns.

The mountain bluebird and Western bluebird are easy to distinguish from the Eastern bluebird via their color patterns.

Other Species of Bluebirds

There are two other species of bluebirds in North America. Their territories have some overlap, but the birds themselves are easily distinguishable. Neither of their ranges include North Carolina. The mountain bluebird's territory is in the western and northwestern parts of North America, while the Western or Mexican bluebird is limited to the southwest and Mexico.

In some areas, the indigo bunting may be mistaken for a bluebird. On closer inspection, the differences are obvious.

In some areas, the indigo bunting may be mistaken for a bluebird. On closer inspection, the differences are obvious.

Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Indigo buntings are some of nature's most vibrant jewels. Even in areas where they're common, like North Carolina, it's a treat to see these incredibly vivid songbirds.

Coloration, Size, and Features

Indigo buntings are small, sparrow-sized birds with short tails. They have small, rounded heads and rather short, conical beaks. However, their beaks are not too short, so they're good for cracking seeds or picking insects out of the brush.

The males are a very vivid blue. Their head, shoulders, back, and belly are very bright, while the wings tend to look darker depending on the light and angle. Females are mostly brown with some lighter areas on their chest and belly and a dusting of blue on their wings and tail.

Range and Habitat

Indigo buntings are more widespread though lesser-known than Eastern bluebirds. These all-blue birds (at least in the males' case) can be found year-round from Florida to New Hampshire and west to the Rocky Mountains. In winter, some parts of the population can be found in Central America, the Yucatan, and across the Caribbean islands. These birds are not found west of the Rockies.

The indigo bunting likes weedy fields filled with scrub brush, especially when the fields are next to woodland. For this reason, some (but not all) suburban neighborhoods are likely spots to find them.

Diet and Feeding

You'll see these birds hopping along the ground and hunting for seeds, insects, and berries among the low vegetation. They can be lured to a backyard feeder if you provide the right combination of habitat and food. Thistle seeds and live mealworms are among the indigo bunting's favorite feasts.

The Indigo Bunting's Call

Males love to find the highest perch and sing all day. Because of this habit and their cheery, warbling song, indigo buntings are sometimes called "blue canaries." Their song can be heard all spring and summer coming from the tops of trees, phone lines, or any other tall perch. There are various mnemonics for the bunting's call, generally pairs of short, repeated words like "fire, fire; where, where?"

Blue jays are raucous year-round residents of North Carolina.

Blue jays are raucous year-round residents of North Carolina.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

Blue jays are perhaps the most recognizable blue birds in North America. Even if you don't know what a blue jay is, you'll probably recognize a photo of this squawking bully bird. Blue jays are well-known for their tendency to crowd out or even chase away other birds from backyard feeders. But did you know that they're also highly intelligent and travel in large family groups with intricate social hierarchy?

Even though these birds can be a nuisance, they're still fascinating, and they're one of the most brilliantly colored backyard birds in North Carolina.

Coloration, Size, and Features

Blue jays are among the largest of the backyard birds commonly found across the eastern part of North America. They are medium, crow-sized birds with bright blue and white markings accented with black. They have a crested head and pointy beak that reminds me of a cardinal's beak.

Range and Habitat

These birds prefer lightly forested areas and forest edges where they can perch in trees and still have access to open areas. The can be found in backyards, parks, campuses, and neighborhoods all across their range.

Diet and Feeding

Blue jays prefer large seeds and nuts, especially acorns. Due to their love of acorns, they unintentionally help spread forests across the continent. They will cache the acorns in holes in the ground and not always retrieve them—meaning the acorn may germinate into a tree. In fact, blue jays are credited with the spread of oak forests after the last ice age!

They like to eat from bird feeders and prefer large, flat feeders they can perch on.

The Blue Jay's Call

Blue jays are well-known for their loud, harsh cries, which don't make for very pleasant listening! The Audubon Society notes that jays also make a "musical queedle-queedle." The mnemonic for blue jays is an easy one: Just remember "jay," which may be repeated as "jay-jay-jay."

How to Attract Blue-Colored Birds to Your Yard

Blue-colored birds are among my most favorite, and I see all three of these birds in my yard on a regular basis. If you also live in North Carolina (or elsewhere in the birds' range) and you're interested in drawing these birds to your yard, here are some common ways of attracting them.

  • Consider your yard's layout. All of these birds like a mix of wooded areas and open fields. They also like having high places to perch. Providing this habitat is helpful. Think about the balance of trees, shrubs, and open spaces in your yard.
  • Supply the right food and feeder. Put out suet in winter to attract Eastern bluebirds. Look for birdseed mixes that include mealworms to entice the indigo buntings to visit. For blue jays, make sure you have a large, flat feeder to meet their needs.
  • Install a bird bath. Blue jays enjoy a good bath and will regularly use a bird bath.
  • Provide nesting areas. Eastern bluebirds like to nest in the hollows of old trees or fence posts. They also nest in boxes. Use bluebird-specific box designs hung on trees or fence posts to attract them. You can even build your own boxes, as I'll describe below.
Make bluebird boxes from recycled lumber or other reclaimed wood like shipping pallets.

Make bluebird boxes from recycled lumber or other reclaimed wood like shipping pallets.

My Experience Making Bluebird Boxes (They're Easy!)

Bluebird boxes are a must-have for any bird enthusiast. The almost-iconic boxes can be seen hanging in most yards in my area, and mine is no exception. I have two homemade boxes in my yard, and I've also made boxes that are now hanging in my sister's, parent's, brother's, and niece's yards (all of them occupied by bluebirds).

DIY Boxes vs. Store-Bought Boxes

I usually make nest boxes from old shipping pallets, but you can just as easily find them ready-made at a nature store or online for fairly cheap. If you are handy or crafty in any way, though, you should be able to make a bird box with no trouble in an hour or less.

Tips on Selecting Pallets to Make the Nest Boxes

  • Look for the HT marking. When using old pallets, be sure to only choose pallets marked with "HT." This means the pallets are heat-treated instead of chemically treated, which means they're safe to use for bird boxes. Also, HT pallets are most often made of hard woods such as oak, maple, cherry, walnut, and other trees that are too small to be cut into higher grade lumber. I even find mahogany pallets from time to time.
  • Check the wood quality. Look for pallets that are clean and unbroken. Look carefully—just because the pallet is whole does not mean the boards holding it together are in good shape. Be careful of loose nails and staples.
  • Check the slat size. The slats of the pallet should be at least 5 inches wide for this project.

Once you have a good pallet, take it home and cut the slats away from the rails to prepare the wood for your project. You can try to remove the boards by taking out the nails if you want, but I usually end up with broken nails and broken boards.

If you don't want to use old pallets, just go to the lumber store and buy the appropriate-sized material. I like to use old pallets because it is my way to recycle, and the old wood makes cool-looking bluebird boxes (plus other pallet projects).

General Specs and Building Advice

  • The box should be between 5 and 5 1/2 inches square on the inside.
  • The hole should be about 5 to 5 1/2 inches off the floor.
  • Drill the hole 1 1/2 inches in diameter; this makes the box more attractive to bluebirds because larger birds cannot get in.
  • I make these houses from two smaller boxes connected by a hinge in the middle. This makes it easy to get inside and clean the boxes out each year.
  • I screw the entire house onto a larger board that eventually gets mounted on a tree or fence post. By using rope to mount the boxes, I do not damage the trees or posts.

Enjoy Identifying the Blue Birds in Your Yard!

The color blue is so vivid when found in nature, and the blue birds we have in North Carolina live up to that statement. The flash of a bluebird, the sudden hop of a blue jay, and the streak of an indigo bunting are unmistakable in North Carolina backyards. I hope this information will help you identify the next blue-colored bird you see!

References

Comments

Jatinder Joshi from Wasaga Beach, Ontario, Canada on September 20, 2013:

Enjoyed reading this hub. Thank you for sharing.

Yes, Bluebirds and especially the Blue Jay are fascinating to watch. One learns so much from these birds - their family orientation and values are something that we humans need to emulate.

TMHughes (author) from Asheville, NC on April 25, 2013:

Thanks. My side yard is perfect for bluebirds, I have several there living iny bluebird boxes.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 25, 2013:

Blue birds are so beautiful and you have so much to share here about this lovely bird and its life. Thanks for writing about such a unique bird

Barbara Purvis Hunter from Florida on April 24, 2013:

Hi TMHughes

I love bluebirds---I have a pair of the most beautiful bluebirds. One looks skyblue and the other one is turquoise.

I enjoyed your hub.

Bobbi Purvis