For Joanne Isenhart, spring officially arrives when she spies the first brilliant flash of color zooming across the sky. That vivid blue streak means her beloved bluebirds have made their way back from their winter retreat, and now their work -- and hers -- is about to begin. "I'm always very excited when I see the first one in the spring," she says. "It's a really big deal, and something you don't forget."
Plenty of people enjoy bird watching or setting out feeders, but bluebirders are a much more dedicated flock. Natural nesting spots for bluebirds are becoming increasingly difficult to find. The birds once commonly built their nests in the hollow spots inside wooden fence posts, but today steel posts are the norm.
That's where bluebird boxes and trails come in. The boxes, which are easy to build (see Web links on the next page), are strategically placed to attract the birds. Monitors check in throughout the spring to make sure no pest birds are moving in and to take note of the bluebirds' nest-building and egg-laying activities. Finally, if all goes well, the bluebirder is rewarded by seeing the eggs hatch and the young birds take flight (fledge).
When Joanne Isenhart and her husband, Tom, saw an acquaintance checking bluebird boxes near their acreage north of Ames, Iowa, they stopped to talk. By the time the couple left, they had found themselves a new pastime.
After attending a meeting at the county conservation center, the Isenharts built several bluebird boxes, forming a trail around their property. They also agreed to take charge of some abandoned boxes on county property near their home.
During their first spring as bluebird box monitors, the Isenharts fledged about 30 young birds and didn't lose a single one. "It was great to have such success that first year, because it got us really excited," Joanne says.
A new generation of bluebirders
By the time twin daughters Serine and Clare were born in 1996, walking or biking along the bluebird trail and monitoring boxes had become a springtime ritual for the Isenharts. Caring for two young children, however, meant less time to tend to the bluebirds, so they scaled back to just a handful of boxes.
This spring, the girls are old enough to hop on their bikes and ride along the bluebird trail with Mom and Dad, so more boxes will be added to their route.
"The girls love it. They think it's fun," Joanne says. "It's a great family activity." Having grown up in a family of nature lovers, Joanne enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband and daughters.
Preparing for springtime guests
By the time bluebirds arrive at their summer homes in late March or early April, depending on the species and location, the boxes and trails should be cleaned, repaired, and ready for nesting. Bluebird pairs often return to the same area -- and even the same box -- year after year.
During a single season, which runs from the birds' arrival until late July, a pair of bluebirds may have up to three separate broods. Monitors are advised to check boxes once a week during this period, but Joanne says sometimes she checks them daily. "When checking boxes, we always carry a backpack with a pair of pliers, a pair of gloves, extra wire, extra nails, and a notepad," she says. It's especially important to have these supplies during the first check of the spring, so repairs can be made on the spot.
Finding grass inside a box is the first sign that a bluebird may be building a nest. Joanne says at first it may be difficult to tell whether the resident is a bluebird, tree swallow, or sparrow, since all are small enough to get inside the box. Within a day or two, she says, sparrows will stuff the box full of garbage, and tree swallows will add feathers. A true bluebird nest, however, will be neat and tidy.
"The closer you get to trees or shrubs, the more wrens you'll get, because wrens love the sticks," Joanne warns. "As soon as you see a wren nest, you'll know it, because the box is just crammed full of sticks." That's one reason boxes are best located near prairies, meadows, or pastures, she says.
Once the nest is built, it's egg-laying time. One egg is laid each day, for as many as six days. Then the female incubates them for about 12 days before they begin to hatch, all at the same time. "I've actually walked up and seen the eggs hatching," Joanne says, "but you really have to be counting the days to do that."
The wrinkly, fuzz-covered chicks will open their eyes about four days later, Joanne says, and somewhere between days 16 and 20, they're ready to leave the nest. Since the little birds will be cramped inside the small box, it's important not to open it from about day 10 until after the chicks have fledged. Otherwise, one could easily fall from the box or try to fly before it's able.
Once the birds have fledged, clean out the box and start monitoring it again. If the old nest is left in the box, the pair will build a new one right on top of it, which can cause mold and insect problems. Construction of the new nest will begin right away, and the process starts all over again.
Learning nature's lessons
One unavoidable rule of nature is that life has a beginning and an end. "One of the hardest things is when you lose that first one," Joanne says. She has lost birds, eggs, and nests to predators, but says there are ways to help minimize loss (see tips below).
The most important lesson is that nature is out there, and you can be a part of it. Besides, Joanne says, "It gets you outdoors, and who knows what else you might see."
Start your own bluebird trail
When setting up bluebird boxes and trails, the North American Bluebird Society offers this advice:
Bluebird boxes should be well ventilated, watertight, have drainage holes, and be easy to monitor and clean. To keep larger birds out, the entrance should be 1 3/8-inch to 1 1/2-inch across, with no perch. Have boxes in place by mid-March.
Open, rural areas with scattered trees and low or sparse ground cover are best for bluebird trails. Avoid areas where wrens and sparrows are abundant, or where pesticides are in heavy use.
Mount birdhouses on smooth, round pipe rather than wooden fence posts. Some monitors coat the posts with biodegradable grease to prevent predators from climbing up, and place hardware cloth underneath the box to keep snakes away.
Boxes for the Eastern Bluebird should be spaced at least 100 to 150 yards apart; those for Western and Mountain Bluebirds should be spaced no closer than 300 yards apart. All should be 5 feet off the ground, facing a nearby (within 100 feet) tree or shrub.
For more bluebirding tips, including plans for building nest boxes from a single 2x6-inch piece of lumber, visit the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) at www.nabluebird society.org. Learn about the NABS's Transcontinental Bluebird Trail and Adopt-a-Box programs at www.tbt.nabluebird society.org.
If your property isn't large enough to support an entire bluebird trail, see your county conservation department for permission to place boxes on nearby county property.
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