Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain Bluebirds- Badland's Beauties

There are at least 7 Reasons to Love Mountain Bluebirds!

When traveling through Western North Dakota a flash of blue can occasionally be seen as a mountain bluebird flies by.  They are early to arrive in the spring and late to leave in the fall.  They can hover in mid air to find insects on the ground or catch them in mid flight.

They are wonderful parents!

Mountain bluebirds are the state birds of Idaho and Nevada. They can live 6 to 10 years in the wild.  They are omnivores and eat spiders, grasshoppers, flies and other insects, and small fruits. The mountain bluebird is a relative of the eastern and western bluebirds.

Seven Reasons to Love Mountain Bluebirds

Reason #1  

They are blue- Blue is a color not often seen in nature where greens and brown predominate, the exception being the brilliant blue sky.  Blue animals in the rural west are not common- blue jays, great blue herons, lazuli and indigo buntings and the mountain bluebird.

Reason #2  

They are not just blue but several shades of blue including turquoise

Reason #3  

You can see them! They perch on dead trees, junipers and buttes

Reason #4  

They hover and can fly in place when searching for food and resemble the American kestrel with this ability

Reason #5

They nest in cavities that can be seen and are not hidden by leaves.  This allows the patient observer to see how hard they work to feed their babies!

Reason #6  

You can see the difference between the Mommy and Daddy mountain bluebirds.  Moms have grey heads and chests and grey blue wings.  Dads have dark or turquoise blue heads and wings with a lighter blue chest.

Reason #7  

They are monogamous.  Moms and Dads work hard to feed their babies.  Dads first come in the Spring and pick out a nest but the Mom will improve the nest.  Dads will feed the Moms when she is sitting on their eggs.  After 14 days of incubation, 4 to 8 babies will be born.  After 21 days of feeding, the babies are able to leave the nest (fledged).  The babies will spend several weeks or longer with their parents before becoming independent. Both Moms  and Dads fiercely protect the nest.

Enjoy these photos of these wonderful birds.

2019 Photos

On the way to Yellowstone National Park, I stopped in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota on May 26, 2019 and found this female Mountain Bluebird busy building a nest.  The Mountain Bluebird is my favorite bird in the badlands and I hope to see them feed their babies in June!

Female Mountain Bluebirds are the nest builders.  

Males sometimes enact a kind of symbolic nest-building—miming the act of bringing nesting material to the cavity, but actually carrying nothing, or else dropping their burdens en route. The female builds the insulated nest by herself, usually working hardest in the early morning. She entirely fills the cavity floor with coarse, dry grass stems and other vegetation, hollowing out a cup just large enough to allow her to cover her eggs snugly, with a maximum interior diameter of about 2 inches. The cup is usually greater than 2 inches deep, and placed as far as possible from the entrance hole. Cavity size determines the nest’s exact external dimensions. The female lines the cup with finer plant material, such as fine grass stems and narrow strips of soft bark, and also in some cases with wool or feathers. The whole process can take several days to more than a week. Mountain Bluebirds often reuse nest cavities within and between breeding seasons, and accumulating nesting material can pile up to the level of the entrance hole.

Dad Mountain Bluebird stand Guard as Mom builds the nest

Athough female Mountain Bluebirds are the nest builders, her mate stands guard and make sure the coast is clear as she flies to the nest.  He often signs to her and calls her to the nest.  Both males and females will fiercely defend the nest.  The female will stay on the eggs for 14 days.  Once born, the babies will stay in the nest for 18-21 days.

This Dad Mountain Bluebird is trying to Help Build the Nest!

Mom makes Many Trips to Build the Nest!  

Mom can Scratch an Itch and Carry Home Building Materials all the Time Standing on One Foot!

Once Mom brings Nesting Materials to their Home, She begins to Build the Actual Nest!

Sitting on Eggs!

This female Mountain Bluebird was photographed in Theodore Roosevelt National Park as I returned from Yellowstone National Park.  The previous week, I had watched her and her mate build the nest.  The nest building was followed by egg laying and more work is to come.  She will lay on the eggs for 14 days.  The babies will fledge in 19 to 21 days and the parents will continue to feed them for 2 to 6 weeks.

LS Johnson, E Ostlind, JL Brukaker, SL Balenger, BGP Johnson and H Golden: Changes in Egg Size and Clutch Size with Elevation in a Wyoming Population of Mountain Bluebirds.  The Condor 108:591-600 2006

Five Babies to Feed!

This Mountain Bluebird Dad was photographed in Theodore Roosevelt National Park with five babies, one of whom shows its triangular-shaped tongue.  Mom and especially Dad were busy feeding the babies.  Mom was more cautious and would survey the surroundings before flying to the nest.  Dad, however, quickly brought insects to the nest.  These are my first photographs of Mountain Bluebird babies.

I am Very Hungry!

This Mountain Bluebird baby was photographed in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  The babies weigh only 4 grams at birth.  By 7 days of age they have grown to 12 grams and by 14 days of age they average 27 grams. 

HW Power III Biology of the Mountain Bluebird in Montana

Singing to His Babies!

Lots of Work Feeding Babies!

Both parents feed babies.  In 2018, the Mom was more active than Dad in feeding the babies, which I could not seen see in the nest.  In 2019, in a different nest, the Dad was more active in feeding the babies. 

Feedings per hour by parents increase as the babies get older from 4 times per hour at 1 day of age to 8 to 12 feedings per hour at 3 to 5 days of age to 23 feedings per hour at 7 to 13 days of age.

HW Power III Biology of the Mountain Bluebird in Montana

Food for His Babies!

Landing with Food!

Food Delivery!

Changing Diapers!

Not All Stories Have a Happy Ending!

Why is This Mountain Bluebird Hovering?

The Answer is Probably Sad!

Where Are My Babies?

Mountain Bluebirds are my favorite North Dakota bird.  I like them because they are beautiful, they are good parents and they have the ability to hover.  In 2018, I was able to locate 3 nesting pairs in the North Dakota badlands.  Two of the sites were hard to get to but one was accessible and I was able to watch from a distance and not disturb these wonderful birds.  The nests were 160 miles from where I live, so getting there was not easy.  In 2018, all three nests were such that I could not see the babies, only the parents taking in bugs and leaving with poop sacs.

In 2019, I was able to locate only one Mountain Bluebird nest.  There were several reasons for this but the main one was lack of available time to get to the North Dakota Badlands.  On the way out to Yellowstone National Park in late May, I was able to find one Mountain Bluebird nest with the pair building the nest.  One week later, on the way back to Bismarck, in early June, I was able to briefly see the Mom sitting in the nest, presumably on eggs.

It was over 2 1/2 weeks later when I was able to return to the Badlands and find the parents feeding 5 babies.  This was the first time I had seen Mountain Bluebird babies and it was very exciting.  The nest had a horizontal floor and I was able to set up my camera 20 yards away and the parents had no concerns.  I spent hours over two days watching the parents bring insects to their babies and removing poop sacs.

One week later, the end of June, I again returned to the Badlands expecting to see the parents feeding the babies.  However, the nest was emptying and the parents were acting agitated.  There was one baby on the ground and the parents were feeding that baby.

Harry Power studied 27 pairs of Mountain Bluebirds in Montana in the early 1960s and 21 nesting boxes.  The average incubation period was 13 days and the babies fledged between 22 and 23 days after hatching.

It is possible, although not likely, that the 4 other babies had fledged.  If eggs were laid the end of May, shortly after I saw the Mom building the nest, the babies should have hatched by June 9 or 10.  I was still expecting to see babies in the nest on June 30.  

It is also possible that a predator (crow, snake, mammal, raptor) got the 4 babies.  I did not see any feathers on the ground.

Both parents made hovering flights over the nest repeatedly as if they were looking to see if their babies were still in the nest.  I left the scene because I could see that the parents were distraught.  I did not want them to stop feeding the baby on the ground and I did not return over the next month.

HW Power III Biology of the Mountain Bluebird in Montana  


Mountain Bluebirds are my favorite birds of the North Dakota Badlands and the subject of my first children's book on birds "Seven Reasons to Love Mountain Bluebirds."  One of the seven reasons is the ability to hover.  You can see the Mountain Bluebird Dad flare his tail feathers and beat his wings forward which allow him to hover.

There are several birds in the Northern Plains with the ability to hover- American Kestrels are champion hoverers and Rough-legged hawks can be seen hovering in the winter as they come down from Canada.  The American Kestrel's ability to hover has been analyzed more than the Mountain Bluebird's "Their bodies are shaped such that with outstretched wings, kestrels automatically glide forward. This forward movement is cancelled out by rapid wing beats. The downstroke is oriented slightly forwards, like it’s banking before a landing, which pushes the kestrel back in order to negate the forward movement. Hovering without any wind is a lot harder to control, however, and requires a bit of a balancing act. When the kestrel loses its balance, it will often slip forward before regaining control and hovering again. Kestrels will often slip about three times before either moving on or circling around to try again, depending on the possibility of finding prey."

The One Baby on the Ground!

Copyright © All Rights Reserved