By Maureen & Cathy Fitzpatrick
All across America, kids like me are helping bluebirds –and you can too. My mom, dad, sister and I got started one day when we went to hear a talk about bluebirds at a nearby park.
The naturalist at the park explained that when he was a kid, people began to worry about bluebirds. There seemed to be fewer and fewer of the birds around. He said that the bluebirds didn’t have enough tree holes to build their nests in. That’s because lots of good nesting trees had been cut down. Plus, more and more tree holes were being taken over by animals that were pushing the bluebirds out.
But the naturalist had some good news too. Thousands of people have come to the bluebirds’ rescue. They build nest boxes for the birds. And after the nest boxes are in place, the people keep watch over the nesting birds. All this help has meant that bluebirds are making a comeback. Hooray!
ON THE TRAIL
We decided to sign up to be bluebird trail monitors. That’s the name for people who check bluebird boxes. So every week between March and August, my family and I drive to nearby Largo, Maryland. Our bluebird trail is in a park there. We keep track of 18 nest boxes on posts spaced out along a trail.
Bluebirds eat insects. And the birds’ favorite nesting spots are next to mowed fields, where bugs are easy to find. Our park trail must be a bluebird’s dream. In the short grass, the birds can find fast food without a fuss. We open each box along the trail and look for new nests, eggs and chicks! It’s so cool to look inside a nest box and see baby bluebirds!
Other birds may use the nest boxes too, so we have to know what kind of nest is in each box. Bluebird nests are the easiest to identify, because they’re the only ones we see made of nothing but grass and pine needles. Wrens use sticks and feathers. Chickadees and titmice make soft nests of moss and hair or fur. When I see one of those nests, I think the babies will feel like they’re sleeping on clouds!
Even when bluebirds are all settled in a box, they still can have troubles. One of their biggest problems is that house sparrows want the boxes too. Many years ago, house sparrows were brought to North America from Europe. Soon they took over lots of the holes in trees that bluebirds needed for nesting. So when we see house sparrow’s nest in a box, we get rid of it before the female lays eggs. (House sparrows mix trash in their nests — that’s how we identify them.)
A problem we can’t do much about is squirrels. These pesky rodents sometimes chew around the box holes. They make the holes big enough so they can get inside to build a nest there. Then these holes also let in bigger birds, like starlings or cowbirds. And raccoons can reach in to steal eggs and chicks. When we find a box with a bigger hole, we take it down and put up a new box.
Sometimes bluebird eggs or babies are missing even though the hole hasn’t been made bigger. That probably means a snake crawled up the pole and through the hole. Snakes must really love bird eggs! If paper wasps move into a box, they drive the bluebirds away. Then I have to ask an adult to scrape out the paper wasp nest so the birds can move back in.
But bluebirds often put up with other insects in their boxes, such as earwigs and ants. I don’t know if bluebirds mind, but it makes me itch just to think about it.
LAST YEAR’S TOTALS
As we go from box to box, we write down what happens in each one. At the end of the year, we give these lists to the naturalist. He lets us know if there is anything we can do to make the trail better. For example, if we didn’t get any birds in a box, he may suggest a new place for it.
After we’re done — here’s the best part– we have an ice scream party at the park. Last year we had 11 bluebird nests in our boxes. We also found 8 house wren nests and 4 chickadee nests. How could there be so many nests when we had only 18 boxes? Many of the boxes were used twice. We also got rid of 15 house sparrow nests and 4 wasp nests and replaced 2 boxes damaged by squirrels.
MAKING THE BOXES
There are hundreds of bluebird trails in North America. And many of the boxes on the trails were made by kids. I got to make some at our nature center’s Celebrate the Bluebird Day. The pieces for each box were all ready for the kids to put together. The hardest part for most of us was hammering the nails in straight. But we all had fun!
DO IT YOURSELF
If your family, class or nature club wants to makes boxes or monitor a trail, ask about it at a park, nature center or museum near you. Or you can get bluebird-box-plans by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to North American Bluebird Society, PO Box 7844, Bloomington, IN 47407. I’m sure you will say, “Wow!” too, the first time you see baby bluebirds in a box.