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Bluebirds Are Making A Strong Comeback



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Bluebirds Are Making A Strong Comeback

By Dottie Evans

Newtown residents watching out their kitchen windows or sitting on their back porches should be on the alert for a smallish bird with a bright blue back, swooping across the yard.

If he perches on a fence post or a tree branch, they might notice his breast of pale red shading to buff. If he sings, they should listen carefully for his song, which is lilting and soft.

Once identified, the Eastern bluebird’s song is unmistakable and beguiling, as more and more Connecticut residents are discovering.

“We’re seeing a lot more bluebirds these days and the reason is obvious. It’s because after years of decline, the population is finally on the increase,” said Department of Environmental Protection agent Geoffrey Krukar, speaking from the DEP’s Wildlife Division in Sessions Woods, Burlington.

“We are getting increased numbers of reports from people who monitor the nest box trails and there seems to be a lot of interest out there,” Mr Krukar added.

The good news is that bluebirds are returning in record numbers to Connecticut backyards, parklands and open space, cemeteries and golf courses –– any green spaces where there is suitable habitat and where people have put up the special nest boxes that bluebirds prefer.

Bluebirds are cavity nesters and must have a box placed by itself out in the open where they can perch nearby to look for insects and spiders in the surrounding grass or meadowland. The box’s entrance hole must be exactly one-and-one-half inches wide –– just big enough for bluebirds and not big enough for starlings, Mr Krukar said. And one side should be hinged so the box can be monitored and cleaned out after each nesting cycle.

English Sparrows

Not Allowed

“Keep the your bluebird box away from brushy areas or you’ll get wrens and English sparrows. If you do have an English sparrow building in your bluebird box, you’ve got to keep removing the nest to discourage it. Sometimes it takes a whole season to get rid of sparrows,” he added.

English sparrows not only like to use bluebird houses, they often prey upon the bluebirds, entering the box and puncturing the bluebird’s eggs or killing the babies.

There is another bluebird expert, Fred Comstock of Bethlehem, who does not mince words when talking about English sparrows. He is a longtime bluebird enthusiast, author, and licensed bird-bander, who watches the local bluebird population with a very critical eye.

Because of his long association with many local residents who maintain bluebird trails and monitor their nest boxes, Mr Comstock is able to keep track of upswings or downturns in the local bluebird population. Sometimes the news is good and sometimes it is not so good, but Mr Comstock maintains that a firm hand is needed to control predation by English sparrows.

“The only good English sparrow is a dead English sparrow,” he has told local groups during his lectures and written in his published book, How To Attract Bluebirds.

Whether or not one ascribes to Mr Comstock’s view, the fact remains that even before the aggressive English sparrows were introduced to this country from Europe in the late 19th Century, bluebirds were already in trouble here as a species.

Near To Extinction

Once common throughout Connecticut in the early to mid-1800s, the bluebird population suffered a drastic decline in the middle of the last century after deforestation. As most of the land was cleared for farm use, Connecticut farmers were using stone walls instead of the early post and rail fences that the first settlers hurriedly erected.

Without wooden fence posts, which often rotted and provided nesting holes, and without the old stands of trees left to die a natural death where they could bore holes and create more nesting cavities, the bluebirds saw a declining habitat.

Even in the early years of this century, according to Mr Comstock, development and loss of habitat have adversely affected the population. Bad winter weather and late freezes also contributed, he said.

“About four years ago we had a very bad winter. Snow covered the berries and the females came out in bad shape. We lost between 30 and 40 percent of our local population that year,” he said, “yet, there have been upswings also,” and this is where intervention by concerned bluebird enthusiasts has helped the species come back from the brink.

He mentioned one lady in Cheshire who was monitoring several bluebird trails. These trails consist of a series of nest boxes placed about 100 feet apart along a large open space area for ease of monitoring.

“We had a very bad freeze a couple of weeks ago and she noticed several nests with dead babies. Also she lost nine eggs to wrens [which also may enter bluebird boxes and remove the eggs]. But now she has seven new families on her farm. They just came back gangbusters,” Mr Comstock said.

Mr Krukar, speaking from the DEP Burlington office, also noted fluctuations in the population, but said they did not seem to permanently change to basic picture, which is an encouraging one as far as numbers go.

“I talked to a lady in Barkhamsted who monitors boxes that have been placed on Water Commission land. She reported one pair of bluebirds last summer that produced three nesting cycles of five, five, and four eggs each. That’s 14 babies hatched from just one box, which is pretty fantastic,” he said.

Keeping Bluebirds Happy

People who want to attract bluebirds to their yards and help the species at the same time can benefit from the advice of experts like Mr Comstock or Mr Krukar by following a few common guidelines.

First, purchase an appropriate box from a nearby garden center and place it in open habitat, on a post about three or four feet above the ground, as far from brushy areas as possible.

Boxes placed near bushes and trees will attract wrens, and boxes placed too near the house or barn may attract English sparrows.

Avoid the use of pesticides or insecticides, which could be harmful to foraging bluebirds.

“Pairing nest boxes” is one method to attract bluebirds to nest alongside other beneficial species, such as tree swallows, Mr Krukar said.

“If you place two bluebird houses about 30 feet apart, tree swallows may select one and defend the territory against all comers, including English sparrows and other tree swallows. They will not bother the bluebirds, who may have taken over the other box,” he said.

Mr Krukar said that over the last decade, the DEP Wildlife Division has been providing nest box kits at no charge to groups looking to build bluebird boxes as a community project.

“Last year we completely ran out of materials, the numbers of requests were so high,” he said.

Any groups wanting bluebird kits should contact Mr Krukar and mention the Nest Box Program. Their names will be added to a list, he said.

“We’ll take firm reservations after November 1 and kits with instructions will be mailed out as long as the supply lasts. That way the boxes can be built and put out by next February [2003] when bluebirds start looking for nesting sites.”

The phone number at the DEP Wildlife Division is 860-675-8130. The address is Department of Environmental Protection, Nonharvested Wildlife Program, Sessions Woods, WMA, PO Box 1550, Burlington, CT 06013-1550.

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