Beautiful birds face challenges in wild

Published 10:41 am Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Column: Dave Churchill, Guest Column

Whenever I take time to indulge an interest in birds and bird-watching it is an eye-opening experience. Like most of my hobbies, birding takes a back seat to work, kids and a thousand other day-to-day things. This week, however, the stars aligned and I made it to a meeting of the Audubon Society’s Austin chapter at the Hormel Nature Center.

Dave Churchill

The topic for the night was bluebird recovery; while I’d been marginally aware that much work has gone into help the species thrive in Minnesota, it was fascinating to learn just how intensive the effort has been.

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Pushed nearly to extinction in the 1960s, eastern bluebirds have staged a comeback; a favorite of bird-watchers for its striking blue and orange colors, bluebirds have benefitted from volunteers’ work in establishing nesting sites.

And “work” is the operative word in this case, because bluebirds face a lot of perils. The birds’ short life spans, need for specific habitat and tendency to be out-competed by more aggressive species tend to make sustaining their population a challenge.

Just how hard it is to foster bluebirds is clear in a brochure that the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota produces for people who want to encourage bluebird nests on their property.

Unlike wrens, robins and other birds that nest willingly just about anyplace, bluebirds require a nest site at least 300 feet from brushy areas, which pretty much makes them country birds; not many city residents have a 300-foot clearance from brush.

Their nests have to be predator-proof, which includes making them unattractive to sparrows and tree swallows, which prefer the same size of nest box. Indeed, in some cases the best strategy is to have two nest boxes — one for the bluebirds and another for swallows. Don’t point the nest box’s door toward a road, because that will tempt fledgling bluebirds to use the wide open blacktop as a first-flight landing zone. And last flight.

Beyond that, bluebird enthusiasts recommend that anyone who establishes nest boxes check on them weekly to make sure the nests are dry, to count the number of eggs, to count how many birds have hatched and to look for signs of predators.

Raccoons look at bluebird nests pretty much the same way people see microwavable TV dinners: A fast, convenient meal in a box. So bluebird nest boxes are best placed atop thin, six-and-a-half-foot-tall aluminum poles. The truly dedicated bluebirder will consider waxing the poles to be sure they’re too smooth to climb.

All of that doesn’t even fully address the issues of other birds that will destroy bluebird eggs, toss fledglings out of the nest, take over nests …

It’s consuming work, as well, for the volunteers who are working to help the species rebuild its numbers, not least because the Bluebird Recovery Program recommends that anyone who puts up nest boxes make the commitment to monitor and maintain them all season. As one of the presenters put it at Tuesday’s Audubon meeting, “I gave up fishing for this.”

If thoughts of spring have you thinking of birds, and bluebirds in particular, there are some great materials at the Bluebird Recovery Program’s web site,


Dave Churchill is the publisher of the Austin Daily Herald.