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.