Western Bluebird vs. Mountain Bluebird: What’s the Difference?
If you love bluebirds, you’ve probably noticed that they don’t always look the same. This is because there are a few different species. In fact, there are three types of Bluebirds: eastern, western, and mountain.
The eastern and western species are pretty similar, with the biggest difference whether they are located to the east or west of the Rocky Mountains. However, you’ll find that the mountain bluebird habitat often overlaps with the western bluebird, meaning you’re likely to see both in many areas. So, how do you tell them apart? Let’s look at the difference between the western bluebird and the mountain bluebird.
Like most birds, the secret to telling apart the western and mountain bluebirds lies in their plumage. The male western bluebird has a bright blue head and feathers but also a white belly and a rusty or orange-colored chest. As is expected with most birds, females of the species will have duller colors than the males.
The difference is relatively easy to see when looking at a male mountain bluebird. You won’t notice any rusty orange coloration. Instead, the male mountain bluebird is almost entirely blue from head to tail, with just a tiny bit of white near its feet. While all bluebirds are beautiful, these are particularly stunning.
However, it is more difficult to tell the female mountain bluebird from its eastern relative. This is because female mountain bluebirds have a large white belly and may have a reddish chest. This makes them look a bit similar; however, their chest is often much duller than the female western bluebird and may even be grey.
Both western and mountain bluebirds have massive ranges that overlap extensively. Western bluebirds can be found year-round in most of California and large parts of southeast Utah, Northeast Arizona, and New Mexico. They can also be found throughout the year in many parts of northern and central Mexico.
During the winter, western bluebirds can also be spotted in larger areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas. They can also be seen in nearly all non-coastal regions of northern Mexico. In the summer, they expand their range to Colorado, west of the Rocky Mountains, and large areas of Oregon & Idaho. They can even be found in some regions of Washington and British Columbia. Between the two, they migrate through northwest Utah, Nevada, and southern Idaho.
Meanwhile, mountain bluebirds have a much smaller year-round range, consisting of the Four Corners states and select areas of Nevada, California, and Oregon. During winter, they will migrate to the east (as far as central Oklahoma) and south into central Mexico. During the summers, you will find them throughout western Canada and even as far away as Alaska. Thus, the only areas where the two species do not overlap are Alaska and the Canadian provinces (except for small portions of British Columbia, where both can be found in the summer).
Additionally, mountain bluebirds (as the name would suggest) tend to live in mountainous regions, often above 7,000 feet in elevation. However, when food is scarce, they will descend to lower elevations. Meanwhile, western bluebirds can be found at a height up to 9,500 feet, giving the two species some considerable overlap in terms of elevation.
The behavior of all types of bluebirds is incredibly similar. They are all cavity nesters that generally mate for life. They favor the same types of food and prefer to hunt in open fields from a slightly elevated perch where they can look for insects.
The one significant difference in behavior relates to their specific hunting styles. Western bluebirds typically dive down from perches, capturing their prey on the ground or picking insects off leaves. They tend to beat prey against branches or the ground before eating them.
However, mountain bluebirds sometimes attack their prey midair, hovering just above the ground to spot insects rather than surveying from a perch. Their larger wingspan, paired with their smaller weight than western bluebirds, allows them to do this.
Which Type Will You See in Your Backyard?
While the habitats of these two types extensively overlap, you can use your elevation to determine the likelihood of which bird you may attract to your backyard. If you live below 7,000 feet, any bluebird you see is more likely to be a western bluebird (although mountain bluebirds may descend to lower elevations, particularly in winter).
If you are above 9,500 feet, you will only see mountain bluebirds. If you are between 7,000 and 9,500 feet, you can see both, although you’ll tend to see a higher proportion of mountain bluebirds the higher up you go.
Since both species have similar behaviors, you can attract them to your yard in similar ways. They prefer open areas with places to perch and Feeders that offer mealworms. Additionally, having a nesting box or birdbath can help bring bluebirds to your backyard.
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