Bluebirds seem like summer birds to many because that is when we most likely see them, and their beautiful coloring suggests a species that spends time in the tropics.

With a vivid-blue head and back contrasting with a rich-orange throat and breast, adult male Eastern bluebirds do not seem to belong in our gray winter landscape.

When they turn up, we are surprised and delighted.

About eight bluebirds appeared in the Williamstown backyard of Kathy Rueblinger on the first day of the year.

"We've been here 14 years, and this is the first time we've ever seen them," Rueblinger said. "We were more shocked to see them because it's been so cold."

Behind her property are some woods and a former hunting club where the bluebirds seem to be based, she said. She and her family and friends "were so excited. They're so beautiful! We've been watching and watching them."

Bluebirds are smaller (7 inches), unusual members of the thrush family. When you see one, look for a family resemblance to its bigger (10 inches) relative, the American robin.

Bluebirds are not common even in summer, when they are often spotted on phone lines along the edges of fields. You can find them in winter in southern New Jersey where fields and woods meet.

On Jan. 1, the Christmas Bird Count in Cape May found 121 bluebirds within its 15-mile-radius count circle. Two days later, a similar effort in Cumberland County counted 181.

Another reason they surprise in winter is that bluebirds do not frequent backyard bird feeders.

Their preferred food from spring through fall is insects, and when those disappear, bluebirds shift their diet to natural berries such as sumac, juniper, holly and bay berries. Rueblinger's bluebirds seemed to snack on red cedar berries.

But while you cannot lure bluebirds with seeds, you can improve your chances by maintaining a heated bird bath, providing rare and much-needed water during cold snaps. I have frequently seen them that way.

Like most cavity nesters, bluebirds became rarer in the past century as suitable holes in trees increasingly were taken by invading European starlings.

People like bluebirds so much, however, that they have intervened on their behalf, putting up tens of thousands of nest boxes for them across the continent. Groups such as Atlantic Audubon offer seminars in how to make the box, where to place them and how to maintain them through the season to improve the chances of bluebird nest success.

You have probably seen such bluebird nest boxes spread out around the edge of a tall grass field. On Saturday, I noticed several bluebird boxes at the Egg Harbor Township Arboretum & Nature Center.

When you see them in winter, these cheerful birds really seem like bluebirds of happiness. There must be something about a strikingly blue bird, because various species that fit the bill have symbolized good fortune for Europeans, Asians and American Indians for many centuries.

For Kathy Rueblinger and her friends and family, what an excellent omen to have bluebirds appear on New Year's Day.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250

The colorful male attracts the drabber female to the nest by making a show of carrying nesting materials into it. Once she chooses him and the nest hole, however, he leaves the rest of the nest building to her.