Those Little Boxes are Summer Homes for Bluebirds

Article by Laurie Wagner Buyer

Wildlife – April 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

ONE OF THE LOVELIEST, if not most vocal, harbingers of spring in the high country is the Mountain Bluebird. Every year I marvel when I see the first flitting scrap of brilliant blue flying from fence post to fence post along our county road, or spot one of these tiny announcers of warmer weather perched atop a small pine like an electric blue Christmas ornament.

I never tire of seeing the bluebirds in our country and I thoroughly enjoy the pairs that choose to nest near our ranch house where they select spots in the eaves or in the protected cover of old outbuildings.

In the past couple of years, I noticed bird houses placed on fence posts all along US Highway 285 through South Park. Curious, I called our Division of Wildlife officer, Mark Lamb, to find out the story behind the miniature housing.

As it turns out, the Division of Wildlife, the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation, and the Denver Audubon Society are all working together on a project to establish more habitat for bluebirds. “We have three species of bluebirds: Eastern, Mountain and Western,” Mark said in an interview last summer.

“We have Mountain Bluebirds here. That is our major species in South Park. Occasionally you might see an Eastern or Western Bluebird, but the majority of ours are the Mountain Bluebird. The biggest problem with bluebirds now is the loss of habitat. Just like most of the critters, loss of habitat occurs, mostly because of development, city development or even just farm development, where a lot of trees that bluebirds nest in have been knocked down or taken down for fields, or for grazing, that’s the big thing.”

Mark explained that bluebirds are impacted by pesticides — just like eagles and Peregrine falcons — as are all songbirds. A loss of the food base for birds here in the United States, and further down in the Southern part of the United States and in Central America, has impacted populations. Pesticides not only kill food sources (insects) important to birds, but in high enough doses they can also kill birds.

Some estimates put the decline of bluebird population at 90% in the eastern United States. But as bluebird populations declined people noticed and started monitoring the birds. The Eastern Bluebird was the first to go into serious decline.

The North American Bluebird Society was founded to encourage placement of boxes, educate people about bluebirds, and “spread the word.” The bluebirds responded very well, and bluebird numbers in the east have increased. Thus, many western states and Canadian provinces have started bluebird organizations.

“The idea then,” Mark said, “was to try to work on the Mountain Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds. The project in Colorado was inspired by the state of Montana, where volunteers worked for years to get up 725 miles of boxes. In Colorado, they decided to take the Highway 285 corridor and turn it into a bluebird trail and put bluebird boxes all along the route.” The proposed route covers approximately 826 miles and includes twenty counties.

Mark speculates that if this current project is accomplished, then they will look at other places where they can improve bluebird nesting and survival. “Bluebird loss of habitat is related to nesting. They are secondary nesters, so called because they must use old cavities in trees for their homes. In trees that have died or just rotted away, woodpeckers or flickers will peck out holes and the bluebirds will come and make use of those nesting places — since they don’t have the ability to peck out their own.”

Once a site is used by bluebirds they may return the following year to the same place. The same theory holds true with nesting boxes. If you put up a bluebird nesting box and bluebirds build a nest there, they may return to use the same nest box the next year.

“The boxes on the highway right-of-way from Redhill to Fairplay, about 20 of them, were put up last year, or the year before, by the local Boy Scout troop,” Mark says. He went to the scoutmaster with the idea and they made a joint effort.

“It was more trouble than I thought it would be at first, buying lumber, cutting out 20 houses and putting them together. It was pretty tedious work, but we got them all done, and I went out and scoped out the spots I thought would be the best for the birds, and we put them up. The result was very rewarding.”

THE BEST PLACE to put the houses is on a fence post overlooking a field, meadow, or pasture which has been grazed or overgrazed, so that the vegetation is short and sparse. Most of the Highway 285 houses face the other way, though, because of the hideous wind that howls through South Park. “Our houses are facing the highway so the hole openings will be out of the wind,” Mark says.

“The most positive part of this project is seeing some success in bluebirds moving permanently into the neighborhood. This is a very good program.

“If we can get more people involved, it would be great. There have been some people who have bought the boxes and just put them up themselves. There is one gentleman, Helmet Quiran, who is called `Mr. Bluebird.’ He is trying different designs on the houses to see if there is better survivability in one model over another, horizontal over tall. This guy does so much work on his own. He is an older gentleman who lives in Littleton, and he is pretty representative of the spirit of this thing.”

Mark relates that there are many great things that bluebirds do, with insect control being the number one plus. “They hammer any of the insects that are around, the mosquitoes, all the things we don’t like, they eat a lot of those. Bluebirds are out constantly, hunting just about all of the time, both to keep themselves healthy and to feed their young. They can have numerous clutches in a year, sometimes they can hatch out two or three batches of eggs, which is good. Plus, people really like bluebirds. They are fun to watch and they’re exceptionally beautiful, especially when they’re in their breeding colors. So, a little bit of work on our part goes a long way toward helping them survive.”

Part of the problem in getting people to help with this kind of project, according to Mark, is that everyone tends to focus on the “big fuzzies,” the large animals that everyone reads about and watches. Birds and reptiles are just as important in the overall scheme of nature, but they are not as glamorous as the elk, or as exciting as bears. When Mark goes into the local schools to talk to the kids, he tries to emphasize that these little animals are just as important as the big animals.

THE IDEA of having bluebird houses around is actually fairly simple. You can buy a pre-assembled box for $15, or you can buy a kit with the wood pieces cut out and instructions for $12.50. “This is a fun project to do with kids,” Mark says.

“They have fun building the box and then monitoring it. And they can learn to talk to the birds — Hey, Mrs. Bluebird, I’m on my way — in order to let the birds know they are coming over. The birds will not be so startled if they are forewarned, then they will fly off and the kids can look in and see if there are eggs, or nesting material. They can watch the little birds hatch out, so its kinda neat. I’m not the most handy person in the world, but if I can build one of these boxes, anybody can build one.”

Detailed plans for bluebird houses are available through the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Rough cut cedar is the best wood to use because there are no chemicals or sealants to affect the birds, and cedar weathers well.

Bluebirds are quite territorial so houses should not be placed too close together. Spacing should be at least 100 yards apart unless there is a barrier of trees or a curve in the landscape so the birds cannot see each other. Each nesting family needs its own private territory. Also, when building bluebird houses, it is important to make certain that the entry holes are the right size. The entrance hole size (1″) is really unique, and it keeps a lot of the bigger birds out. Never put a perch on a bluebird house, because bluebirds don’t perch. They hover as they come to their house and then just zip into the hole.

One problem with bluebirds or with song birds in general, according to Mark, is that the English Sparrows have taken over a lot of the bluebirds’ historic range. “These birds [sparrows] are non-native and more aggressive than bluebirds.” Therefore, it is imperative to follow directions for the right kind of house for bluebirds and other song birds.

Once bluebird houses have been built and put up in good locations, the real challenge is in monitoring and maintaining the boxes. Part of the responsibility of the individual or the organization who puts up the houses is to be conscientious about monitoring them. “The big push in this project,” Mark says, “is to have volunteers take care of the boxes and monitor them year after year.”

In South Park, bluebirds return in the spring, sometime in March.

Mark advises, “If someone is going to put up a box for bluebirds and have it accepted, then the earlier they can get it up the better. In fact, it is even better to get it put up in the winter so the box is there when the birds return. Boxes can even be put up late in the fall and the birds will notice them and come back and accept the spot a little quicker.” Bluebirds pull out in the fall, typically the middle to the end of August. The birds gather then for their migration south to warmer climates.

MARK LAMB relates that he is seeing more and more bluebirds around and that gives him a great deal of satisfaction. “If you have a spot where bluebirds are already nesting,” he advises, “don’t discourage them. The more the merrier. They are such pretty birds, especially the males, so nice and blue. Really neat. What we need is more of an understanding of birds in general.

“It’s not just the deer and elk that have had loss of habitat. We at the DOW keep on preaching `loss of habitat,’ but it doesn’t just affect the big things. Big things, little things like the bluebirds, they are all interconnected. We need to provide habitat and keep links open so lands don’t get fragmented and animals, mammals and birds alike, don’t get separated from their nesting and breeding areas. If we can get people to understand that, then we can conserve and preserve species and ecosystems.”

For anyone interested in nature and wildlife, beginning with the Bluebird Project seems like a very good place to start. To learn more about the Bluebird Project call Sherry Chapman (Denver Audubon Society), the project coordinator, at 303-291-7253.

“Sherry is a sweetheart,” Mark says. “She’s the lady to talk to. She’s really good. There are a lot of volunteers in Denver who work with her. I really want to see this project be ongoing but it needs to be a volunteer effort. DOW just does not have the time. For myself, I love the birds, but I just can’t fit more into my eight-days-a-week, 21-hours-a-day job. I’d like to see more people get involved.”

Laurie Wagner Buyer ranches and writes near Fairplay. A new book of her poetry, Red Colt Canyon, will be published this summer by Music Mountain Press of Westcliffe.

Music Mountain Press.