I wonder how the bluebirds are doing along the Bluebird Trail.
When I think about that lovely and meandering trail in northwestern Minnesota, dotted with about 60 Peterson-style bluebird houses, Gilbertson PVC nest boxes and other types of bluebird housing, it's hard for me to believe that it's already been 10 years since I first became acquainted with the charming prairie bluebird trail.
In April 2000 I became the manager of the Agassiz Audubon Society's Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary. For the following two years I thoroughly enjoyed maintaining and monitoring the bluebird trail and its dozens of bluebird dwellings. To this day, I often think of the Bluebird Trail as I monitor my own bluebird houses around my home and nearby countryside roadways.
There are few songbirds I know of that receive as much attention as the eastern bluebird. Their acceptance of artificial nest boxes has undoubtedly endeared them to many human admirers, to be sure, but so have the bird's attractive physical features. Indeed, the males' pleasant and warbling song and beautiful blue plumage and rusty red breast make them an immediate favorite.
However, it hasn't always been so good for the eastern bluebird. Habitat loss, as it is with most any species of wildlife, has affected bluebird distribution and abundance as well. But thanks to an army of conservation-minded individuals and groups, bluebird organizations and wildlife agencies, bluebird populations are not nearly as troubled as they once were.
Throughout much of the east half of the United States across prime eastern bluebird habitats, countless numbers of ambitious projects have been implemented to assist in the bluebird's recovery. For instance, as I already mentioned, miles of "bluebird trails," complete with erected bluebird houses along their routes, have been established.
For example, at the Audubon wildlife refuge that I once managed, the Bluebird Trail, which was made possible through a grant from the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and its "Bluebird Recovery Program," helped to not only establish nesting boxes in order to attract bluebirds, but the trail itself became an instant attraction for birds and birders alike.
Officially known as the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota, the program was one of the first bluebird organizations in the United States. From its beginning as a formed committee of the Minneapolis Chapter of the Audubon Society in 1979, the organization has long since "fledged" and has grown to about 1,000 members. Moreover, some 12,000 people across the nation have requested information packets about bluebirds and bluebird recovery from BBRP.
One important and useful bit of information written by BBRP's state coordinator Keith Radel (also posted on the program's website), is titled "Top Ten Tips for Successful Bluebirding." I believe it's something all those with an interest in attracting bluebirds should read before they install their first bluebird house. Even those of us who have been installing and monitoring boxes for years should do so.
Here are, starting with number one, the top 10 tips: Commitment, Habitat, The Right Nest Boxes, Proper Mounting, Spacing, Welcome Chickadees and Tree Swallows, Dealing With House Sparrows and House Wrens, Nest Checks, Keep Bluebirds Safe, and Report Your Results.
All the tips are valuable, but a few especially stand out. Habitat is right up there in my bluebird book. Too often those well-intentioned bird lovers buy or build a bluebird house expecting that its placement in their back yard or on a tree somewhere ensures a bluebird will become the eventual occupant.
Arriving in northern Minnesota usually by mid- to late March, eastern bluebirds prefer open areas, not wetlands, with short or sparse grass that's free of underbrush for potential nest sites. Prime locations tend to be rural, mowed or grazed areas, prairies, and near roadways. Bluebirds are fond of perching from power lines, fence posts or nearby trees to scan the vicinity for insects, their primary food.
Spacing is another important consideration when erecting bluebird houses. It's a frequent occurrence to observe clusters of bluebird houses along fence lines or backyards and fields. Although well-meaning, such practices are not necessarily the best. Since bluebirds are territorial, more boxes spaced too closely together do not necessarily mean more bluebirds. It's recommended to space bluebird houses at least 1,000 feet apart. Too many boxes often increases use by competing species, such as tree swallows.
Over the years I have often written about checking bird houses on an annual basis -- sort of a "spring cleaning," if you will. Such a practice is good bluebird management and should be an active part of everyone's bluebird program. Not only do such activities enable us to adequately check the condition of a nest box and make repairs if needed, it is also a good time to clean the old nest material out.
We should also check bluebird boxes during the nesting season. Such visits provide us an opportunity to remove parasites (such as blowfly larvae), dead nestlings and old nests before the second nesting season begins. In the fall, after bluebirds have migrated, doors can be left open to discourage mice or other unwanted tenants from using the structures.
Personally, I leave the doors of my bluebird nest boxes closed. Our Minnesota winters are hard enough, so why not provide shelter for other creatures during a critical time of the year? You can always "evict" the guests in the springtime.
Such as it is, the eastern bluebird is well into the nesting season once again here in the Northland. Even so, it's not too late to put out a box or two -- and it's always a good time to monitor your current nest boxes while evaluating your bluebird management program. So take a look at the top 10 bluebirding tips. You'll be glad you did as you get out and enjoy your bluebirds in the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.