Bluebird Recovery

     Drifting, dancing, or driving, as I write, the snow still defines the routines of man and beast. Spring may seem a distant dream for many, but even in the icy grip of March the signs of renewal are all around us. Cardinals and chickadees sing their Spring songs on crisp clear mornings. The drumming of woodpeckers resounds in wood lots and parks. The soft paws of Pussy Willow warm themselves in the sunlight of longer afternoons. Everywhere one looks in March nature is making preparation. Soon the sap will run in maple and birch to fuel an explosion of new growth waiting in dormant buds. Soon, the ice will loose it’s grip on streams and lakes. The newly open waters inviting a host of seasonal travelers of the feathered variety.
     Most folks hold out for April showers and May flowers to herald the arrival of Spring. The new season officially arrives with the Vernal Equinox, March 20th. Ask a dedicated group of bird lovers across the mid-west and you will get another answer. These people will tell you that Spring arrives on the wings of the first returning Bluebird.
     The Eastern Bluebird, the Mountain Bluebird, the Western Bluebird, all members of the thrush family that includes the familiar American Robin. Unlike other thrushes, Bluebirds nest in tree cavities. For this reason and others we almost lost the Eastern Bluebird. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, as in much of the eastern United States, the Eastern Bluebird had been fairly common in open habitat in rural areas, small towns, and even on the edges of larger cities. By 1979 this beautiful bird was listed as uncommon to very rare over much of it’s original range. What had happened? Why had populations plummeted?
     Three main factors combined to spell disaster for the Eastern Bluebird.
[1] The loss of natural nesting sites tops the list. The felling of old dead trees that might provide a safe nesting cavity and the switch from wooden fence posts to metal posts were to blame. Nesting sites became fewer as farm fields got bigger.
[2] After the introduction and expansion of invasive English House Sparrows and European Starlings, competition for the few remaining nest sites took a huge toll on Bluebird populations. The new House Sparrows and Starlings were much more aggressive and they almost always won the battle to occupy a nest site
[3] The introduction of pesticides to farming practices dealt another blow. As pesticide use became common, Bluebirds became uncommon. Bluebirds eat insects, insects now laced with a deadly cocktail of chemicals.
     How, in the face of so much adversity, has a small bird that few have ever seen manage to make a comeback? The amazing survival story is a testimony to the strength and determination of grass roots efforts. It is a story of how one small band of concerned citizens can affect monumental change. In 1978, National Bluebird Society in Maryland was organized by former Minnesotan Lawrence Zeleny. Later that same year, Dick and Vi Peterson of Brooklyn Center Minnesota laid the foundation for the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota. Similar groups and chapters sprung up everywhere the Bluebird had once been common. They waged an all out war on House Sparrows and Starlings. They invested years of research, testing and refining their nest box designs. Groups from different states freely shared their successes and failures, increasing the knowledge base of all bluebird enthusiasts. Most importantly, they erected thousands of nest boxes to create Bluebird Trails across the country. The Transcontinental Bluebird Trail (TBT) is the largest network of nest box trails in the United States. On June 10th of 2001 TBT spanned the North American Continent with 18, 587 registered nest boxes on 360 trails in the U.S. and Canada.
     In a matter of only 20 years the results of their efforts have been remarkable. Bluebirds are once again becoming a familiar site in rural America. Bluebirds have found new homes in our parks, greenways, and golf courses. Even in the suburbs of larger cities, one can reasonably expect to attract this lovely bird by providing a nest box and the right habitat. The return of the Bluebird is an inspiration to other conservation efforts across the country. As a symbol of what is possible, the sight of a Bluebird also provides hope for the future. Optimism has wings, wings of blue. In March I wait, like hundreds of other Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, for that first hopeful flash of blue. The return of Spring, the promise of a better tomorrow.
     Bluebirds will start arriving as early as mid March. They will seek out nest sites and defend them but won’t start nesting until the end of April. Nest boxes should be erected in suitable habitat, short grassy areas, meadows and fields with sparse tree cover. Nest boxes should be mounted, cleaned and in good repair by the end of April. Boxes erected in May will attract young Bluebirds looking for new territory. Consult with a local Bluebird expert, wild bird store, or contact one of the following sources for more information on attracting, protecting and providing for Bluebirds.

The Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota
Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis
Box 3801
Minneapolis, MN 55403

The North American Bluebird Society
Box 74
Darlington, WI 53530

Kelly Larson
Northern Flights Wild Bird Store
Bemidji, Minnesota 218-444-3022