Bluebird housing styles

Bluebird nestbox

This example of a bluebird nestbox shows the side-opening panel to make it easy to clean each season. It also has a collar outside the entrance hole to make it difficult for racoons to reach in. Stratification below the entrance hole inside helps fledglings climb out. Photo courtesy of the North American Bluebird Society.

Published May 2, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bluebird housing makes a difference.”

2014 Update: The North American Bluebird Society website is www.nabluebirdsociety.org.

By Barb Gorges

I didn’t grow up with bluebirds. First, because I was a suburban kid. Second, I didn’t look much at birds; and mostly, it was a period of time during which bluebird populations in the Midwest had decreased due to pesticides and loss of cavity nesting places like hollow trees and wooden fence posts.

Notes in my old field guide indicate my first eastern bluebird was July 1975, when I rode my bike out into the countryside between split shifts for the food service at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Then, in 1978, I reported for the campus paper on a talk by Vincent Bauldry of Green Bay, Wis., who had built a better bluebird nest box. He had 21 years of experience showing that a hole in the roof (screened to keep out predators) had greatly improved nesting success. By the end of the year, Bauldry’s design got national coverage, when I sold the story to Organic Gardening magazine.

Bauldry claimed his design imitated rotting wooden fence posts where eastern bluebirds liked to nest. Added moisture from rain helped the eggs stay hydrated and excluded competing species, such as starlings.

When I mention this “skylight” concept to bluebird box experts out here, they think I’m crazy, maybe because few cedar fence posts on western rangeland rot in the dry climate.

There are, however, other modifications Bauldry used that can be seen in modern bluebird nest box plans today.

A traditional bird house, the kind people now paint decoratively and display in their living rooms, is often cube-shaped with a peaked roof. Bauldry made his with a flat roof and made it more than twice as deep so that eggs or nestlings were beyond reach of a marauding racoon’s arm.

The increased depth, he said, would also keep the young in the nest longer, so they would be stronger when they fledged. He added horizontal saw cuts on the inside of the front wall to help the babies climb the greater distance to the entrance hole.

Bauldry eliminated any kind of twig-like perch sticking out by the entrance, making it more difficult for nuisance birds to find a vantage point from which to harass the bluebirds.

His nest box design is clearly utilitarian, with one side swinging open so old nesting material can be cleaned out between broods, a feature of most modern nest boxes for any species.

I don’t know if it’s Bauldry’s innovation, but his box, and several modern box designs, usually have the back wall extend either below the floor and/or above the roof so there’s something to nail to the fence post or other support. Bluebirds evidently don’t care for the rock-a-by-baby effect of hanging bird houses in trees.

When Alison Lyon of Audubon Wyoming gave a presentation on mountain bluebirds at the Wyoming State Museum in conjunction with the opening of the Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Competition last month, someone in the audience wanted to know how to attract mountain bluebirds to Cheyenne.

Unless the city expands its limits halfway to Laramie and dedicates the land to open range, and also raises the elevation from the present 6100 feet to something over 7000, the mountain bluebird’s preference, it’s unlikely they will ever do more than pass through during migration.

The most dependable place to see mountain bluebirds close to town is Curt Gowdy State Park, where several Eagle Scout candidates have installed nest boxes or, a little further up Happy Jack Road, at North Crow Reservoir.

Reports of mountain bluebirds begin in the last half of February, making them a harbinger of spring for me. I once made a quilt and re-colored the Flying Swallows pattern to represent them and commemorate this annual event.

It turns out my favorite sign of spring, the spot of sky blue in a gloomy landscape, can be found all winter as close as southern Colorado, though many more head south into Mexico.

By summer, mountain bluebirds can be found from Arizona and New Mexico north to eastern Alaska.

Catching a glimpse of a mountain bluebird is always a treat. I double check to make sure what I’m looking at isn’t a western or eastern bluebird. Much less abundant in Wyoming than the mountain, their ranges extend into western and eastern Wyoming, respectively, overlapping the mountain’s.

With red on their breasts, I always think of these two as the blue-coated versions of the closely related robin, since they are the same general shape, though smaller.

Mountain bluebird males are blue all over and the females are less bright, more gray.

Besides dressing up the landscape, bluebirds eat insects. That is one reason why so many smart people encourage bluebird nesting around their property by installing a series of nest boxes along a “bluebird trail.” Providing nest boxes makes a difference to the birds too, especially for the eastern bluebird, whose population has made progress in recovering.

If you like bluebirds or are serious about building a bluebird nest box or trail, the ultimate resource for information and specifications, such as using a 1 and 9/16 inch entrance hole, is the North American Bluebird Society web site, www.nabluebirdsociety.org.

Winning bluebird painting

Mountain Bluebird-Renee Piskorski

This is another of Renee Piskorski’s Mountain Bluebirds, purchased recently by me and my husband.

Published April 25, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Cheyenne artist earns conservation stamp honor.”

2014 Update: Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Competition winners are now exhibited in the lobby of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Cheyenne headquarters, 5400 Bishop Blvd. The annual competition exhibit opens and winners are announced mid-April each year. See http://wgfd.wyo.gov/web2011/home.aspx. Renee Piskorski’s work can still be seen at Deselm’s, http://deselmsfineart.com/.

By Barb Gorges

For the first time since its inception in 1984, a Cheyenne artist has won the Wyoming Conservation Stamp Art Competition sponsored by Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Artist Renee Piskorski’s winning portrayal of mountain bluebirds will be printed on 300,000 stamps for the 2003 hunting and fishing season and the original will be framed and added to the gallery of previous winners at the department’s Cheyenne headquarters.

Beginning January 1, anyone can own a print of the winning painting by purchasing the conservation stamp for $10 through the department or any outlet that carries hunting and fishing licenses, or by purchasing a full-size limited edition print.

In addition to being collectibles, the conservation stamps must accompany any Wyoming hunting or fishing license. The fees collected go into the Wildlife Trust Fund for habitat acquisition and improvement, non-consumptive use of wildlife and nongame projects.

Competition coordinator Mary Link said 97 artists from 29 states and Mexico entered and that more Wyoming artists than usual participated, 42 percent.

Of the other entries that placed or received honorable mention, three were from Wyoming, two from Utah, plus one each from Nebraska, Ohio and Connecticut. The judges included art and bird experts.

Piskorski said wildlife artists consider the Wyoming contest to be second in prestige only to the federal duck stamp competition, due to the quality of the competition and the prize money offered ($2,500 for first place).

“It’s important for me to get the correct anatomy and habitat,” said Piskorski, discussing her winning technique for painting wildlife. “I need to go to their environment to view them. I take lots of photographs and study videos. Then I do thumbnails, sketches.”

“For the stamp you have to remember it’s very small. It was difficult to paint them (mountain bluebirds) larger than life. It felt like a Hitchcock movie.”

“I’m always trying to keep in mind the mood I’m trying to create, using the light and the weather. And I keep a color palette in my mind while I’m sketching.”

Piskorski said she has never had formal art training, but has been painting most of her life, and seriously for 15 years, beginning with a request for her paintings from the gallery owner she worked for. Her career snowballed from there. Her entries in the competition in past years received third, fourth, and sixth place.

As a professional artist, she can justify trips to Yellowstone and the Tetons two or three times a year for research, continuing an outdoor lifestyle that began with hunting and fishing trips with her dad, who was an artist himself, an engineering draftsman with a bent for drawing political cartoons.

“In the end I hope the viewer will feel the same emotion that I felt while painting it,” said Piskorski of her work, “and maybe have an even greater appreciation for the natural world and want to preserve it.”

More of Piskorski’s work can be seen at Deselm’s Fine Art gallery.

Her winning oil painting, “Sagebrush Outlook,” will be on display at the Wyoming State Museum, 2301 Central, upstairs with all the other entries until May 25. Then it will travel with the “Top 40,” to Cody, Thermopolis, Dubois and Pinedale. All of the entries, except the winner, are for sale.

eBird’s occurrence maps animate migration

Mtn Bluebird occurrence eBird

Image of Mountain Bluebird occurrence for March 15, 2012 provided by eBird (www.ebird.org). Click on the map for a larger image.

Published March 23, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The bird migration picture gets animation.”

By Barb Gorges
This year, Feb. 19 marked the first report of mountain bluebirds for Cheyenne. This is early, but not unusual. I can’t help thinking the next batch of February snowstorms drove them back south again.

Recently, I discovered I can watch animated maps of bird migration. These maps on www.eBird.org take the data of 60 selected bird species and show their journeys across the country, week by week. (Click on “About,” then look for “Occurrence Maps” under “News and Features.”)

The data in these maps come from bird sightings that citizen scientists–you and me–have submitted over the years.
In a field guide, the mountain bluebird’s yearly movements are difficult to depict on a static range map that accompanies their descriptions.

They are settled mostly over the Rocky Mountain West, avoiding the Pacific Coast. But in winter they leave the northern Rockies and mountains and leak out over the Great Plains (eastern Colorado, Kansas, Texas panhandle), in addition to the interior of California and Oregon, the southwest and Mexico. Some even winter in southern Idaho.

To watch the animation of our sightings is fascinating. As you watch, you’ll see a spectrum of fire colors flicker across the map. These colors indicate their rate of occurrence, which is the probability of detection.

Areas with slight possibility of occurrence are a cold, ashy gray. As the possibility increases, the color warms to orange, finally heating up through yellow to white-hot—where the species is thickest.

As the animation cycles from week to week, the “flames” flicker across the land. As someone who was asked to drop statistics before the professor was forced to flunk me, this visualization of numbers, statistical modeling, is magic.

Watching the screen is like watching flocks of mountain bluebirds roaming the prairie. And I notice that even in January, there is a faint haze of orange in Wyoming. It means someone was outside, or at least looking out the window, noticing bluebirds in the depths of winter.

Other species are completely absent from the U.S. for six months.

In mid-April, the western tanager explodes over the Mexican border in a hurry to find the best breeding locations. Then it spreads out into little islands—islands of preferred breeding habitat scattered over western mountain ranges. Then it seems to drift slowly south beginning in mid-July as young birds explore. It is entirely gone, from the U.S. at least, by October.

Our state bird, the western meadowlark, a short-range migratory species, apparently overwinters in low numbers in southern Wyoming. I’m glad we picked a bird that doesn’t completely abandon us.

For each species with a map, there are notes that describe what is going on, and admission that sometimes the numbers have biases. One of those biases is detectability.

In the spring, birds, mostly the males, are often singing during migration. But by the time they head south, they can be rather quiet. The note for grasshopper sparrow, a small, drab, brown bird says, “it appears that the species just disappears when in fact thousands are passing southward….Ideally, future versions of these maps will be able to incorporate species-specific detectability variables and will start measuring abundance, not just occurrence.”

Another bias is caused by birders themselves, and their propensity to flock to where the most birds are. In the discussion of the blackpoll warbler map, the note says, “…there are biases in how birders sample the landscape. For this reason, we have tried to promote the use of random counts so that widespread habitats (with less rare bird potential) are sampled in a proportion that more closely resembles their percentage ‘on the ground.’”

Good luck with that!

Where would you prefer to spend a spring morning birdwatching? Along Crow Creek, among the cottonwoods where interesting warblers are known to show up? Or out on some treeless, nameless, numbered gravel road in the hinterlands of Laramie County? It could be worth a look, though.

Don’t forget to take your notebook and pencil (or your eBird reporting app) with you everywhere this spring and submit all of your bird observations to http://www.eBird.org.
You may be helping to re-write—and re-visualize—what we know about bird migration.

Note: It’s hard to understand how insectivorous birds like mountain bluebirds can find food in the winter and winter-like spring months of Cheyenne’s climate, but they also eat dried fruit, like juniper berries. And, I’ve read, on cold nights they will all pile together in old nesting cavities or nest boxes to keep warm. Most bird species only use their nests for breeding.

The haze of mountain bluebirds shown on the map for Wyoming in January is more likely the computer’s extrapolation of where they should be based on habitat because there is a lack of sightings in the data base. Somebody needs to go out and look next January to see if eBird’s prediction is right.

Mountain Bluebird is harbinger of spring

Mountain Bluebird, courtesy Wikipedia.

Mountain Bluebird, courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Mar. 20, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “On the Wyoming range the mountain bluebird is a harbinger of spring. The colorful birds move back to their perches and fence posts in late February and early March.”

2014 Update: The North American Bluebird Society has annual conferences in June, in Boise, Idaho.

By Barb Gorges

A true Wyoming sign of spring is the migration of mountain bluebirds. Forget robins—there aren’t too many to be found on the open range.

By late February or early March we see mountain bluebirds take up their perches again on fence posts and other high spots out in the country—the open country—even though winter weather isn’t quite over.

The flash of that incredible shade of blue, like a piece of sky, as a male mountain bluebird flies out from his perch is enough to endear the species to you forever. The female is gray with just a trace of blue. If you look hard, you’ll see she isn’t very far away from the male.

Ironically, mountain bluebirds prosper amidst farming and grazing or where forests have been cut as long as there are fruits and seeds to forage for in the winter and insects in the summer. They’ve also been aided by people willing to put up nest boxes for them.

If you have rural property, consider starting your own bluebird trail, a series of nest boxes. But not any old bird house will do. The openings must be 1 and 9/16 inches in diameter to keep out house sparrows.

The boxes must be deep enough to keep marauding raccoons (yes, we have raccoons around Cheyenne), cats and birds from reaching inside and grabbing or pecking the nestlings. Raw wood is better than wood finishes. And it is necessary to install an easy way to open the box for cleaning.

No need to reinvent the wheel. Lots of advice is available through the North American Bluebird Society. While the two red-breasted species, the eastern bluebird and the western bluebird, are more recognizable, the society also addresses our solid blue mountain species.

The website, www.nabluebirdsociety.org, has lots of information on monitoring nest boxes, keeping them safe from predators and enticing bluebirds to use them. You can also call 1-812-200-5700 between noon and 3 p.m. EST, Monday – Friday.

The Web site has plans for several kinds of nest boxes. The Peterson Bluebird House is the style you see on the fence posts out at Curt Gowdy State Park, 30 miles west of Cheyenne. The park is an excellent place to catch a glimpse of mountain bluebirds. Watch for flocks of sparrow-sized birds that flash blue as they turn in the sun.

First sign of spring arrives

Mountain Bluebird

The Mountain Bluebird is an early spring migrant in southeastern Wyoming. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 4, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “First sign of spring arrives.”
2014 Update: It’s hard to use the first appearance of the Mountain Bluebird as a measure of global climate change unless I go out every day to look.
By Barb Gorges

Late winter in Wyoming means only a few more snowstorms until summer. However, it’s still worthwhile looking for signs of spring.

On Washington’s real birthday I saw my favorite sign, my first mountain bluebird, up at Curt Gowdy State Park. At almost 1,500 feet higher than Cheyenne, the advent of spring should be two weeks behind there. But skimming over the brown grassland at about 7,500 feet in elevation in late February is normal for mountain bluebirds. The northern edge of their winter range is only southern Colorado so they don’t have to travel far to be here.

Bluebirds are insect eaters, seen typically perched on a fence post or the tip of a shrub before launching themselves after a flying delicacy, or just hovering like a hawk, waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting caterpillar. Are there any live insects so early? A fly fisherman standing on ice on the edge of open water at Granite Reservoir that same day seemed to think so.

Bluebirds, like their close relatives the Townsend’s solitaire and American robin, will eat berries, but as we rambled the nearly snowless open country dotted with pine, the mountain bluebird’s favorite terrain, the berries seemed few and far between. The bluebirds were also, so maybe it all works out. By the time the rest of the crew, wintering as far south as Mexico, heads back, insects should be hatching.

Other people may count the robin as their sign of spring. I used to, until I started getting outside more in the winter and realized there are always a few around, especially in riparian thickets with berries. I don’t think they really count for spring until they show up on our lawns.

In lower country, too low for mountain bluebirds, I look for western meadowlarks. Maybe it’s more precise to say I listen for them, though most of the time they are singing in plain view on a fence post. Perhaps they make a good first sound of spring because it means it’s warm enough to have windows open.

You’d think that migrating birds would have some inside information on weather so they wouldn’t start back until conditions were perfect. This isn’t so. I remember an April a few years ago when we took John Flicker, newly appointed president of the National Audubon Society, on a field trip around Cheyenne. Fresh snow glinted on everything that bright morning, and there, like a drop of frozen sunshine, was a dead meadowlark, yellow belly visible in a snowdrift.

Birds here year-round make changes in honor of spring. Some, like the male house finches and goldfinches, get brighter plumage. Others start hanging around in pairs. On our February ramble, up above a rocky outcrop, I saw two ravens fly looping patterns in perfect tandem, as if performing a three-dimensional skating routine. A pair of mallards has been swimming quite cozily in the ditch by my house since mid-February.

The noise level in the neighborhood has changed too, or maybe I’m just not bundling up my ears as much. The house sparrows and house finches are really making a racket. It seems a little early to be defending nesting territories, but having experienced spots of warm weather over the last couple months, maybe they are itching for spring as much as anyone.

I know I shouldn’t tempt fate by mentioning this, but does it seem to you that in town the ground has been even more brown than white this winter? Though it is nice not to have to shovel often or watch snowbanks turn black and then turn into slushy reservoirs at every curb, are we missing anything, besides recharging the aquifer, by not having a blanket of snow to protect the prairie for the winter?

Be careful what you wish for on Groundhog Day, especially in the Arctic where aerial photography over 50 years has documented how a warming climate is thawing the permafrost and increasing woody vegetation.

Audubon Alaska executive director Stan Senner (you may remember his visit to Cheyenne years ago when he was director of Birds in the Balance) is quoted in the December 2003 issue of Audubon magazine, “Almost every Arctic nesting bird will be affected in some way by climate change. The northward march of woody vegetation may extend the ranges of birds like the Arctic warbler. But birds that nest in open situations, like the long-tailed jaeger, may be limited by more woody vegetation.”

Who knows how a warming climate will play out here? Maybe we’ll have mountain bluebirds regularly on the Christmas Bird Count. There is already a report for one in Wyoming as early as February 3 and one as late as January 1. If the bluebird season extends any further, what will I do for a sign of spring?

My cousin (once removed, I think) sent pictures from northern Wisconsin today of pristine snow hip deep. I grew a little wistful—until I remembered spring in snow country is mud season. I appreciate again living in what was once known, perhaps only prematurely, as the Great American Desert.