Once in steep decline, Ontario’s eastern bluebird is well on the road to recovery thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers, researchers and a lot of nest boxes
by Moira Farr
This will be a special year for Jim Sauer, treasurer of the Ottawa Duck Club and a man devoted to the conservation of bluebirds. Sauer says the number of fledglings from the more than 30 nest boxes he has built and put up on rural properties south of his Ottawa home for the past 23 years will surpass 1,000 this spring. It is an impressive record, considering that when he started in the early eighties, he had never even seen a bluebird. “I was raised in Golden Lake [in eastern Ontario], and my dad said there used to be bluebirds all the time. I wondered, how come they’re not here anymore?”
Bluebirds declined dramatically throughout the 20th century. Widespread deforestation, along with the destruction of orchards and pasture land, deprived the birds of ideal places for nesting. Introduced species such as starlings and house sparrows outcompeted bluebirds for the nest spaces that remained. As early spring nesters, bluebirds produce young susceptible to sudden cold snaps. Raccoons and other persistent predators also contributed to the drastic drop in bluebird numbers. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) designated the eastern bluebird as rare in 1978, but the bird was de-listed in 1996 as its numbers across the province increased – in 2002, the Ontario Christmas Bird Count recorded 779 bluebirds – thanks in large part to the efforts of people like Sauer. Today, the Ontario Eastern Bluebird Society, formed in 1988 in response to the bluebird’s decline, has hundreds of members, all doing their part to help the species survive and thrive by constructing suitable nest boxes, joining trail-monitoring teams, keeping population records and meeting annually to exchange information.
When Sauer took me to the “ideal” nest site for bluebirds, I saw an old pasture beside a secluded road with broken-down fences and barn, and an orchard and forest behind. Sauer says it is the one place he always finds bluebirds in his boxes.
If you are interested in helping bluebirds, or any other cavity-nesting species, (chickadees, house wrens and tree swallows will flock to cavities they find attractive), experts like Sauer and Chris Earley, an interpretive biologist and education coordinator at the University of Guelph Arboretum, are all for it – as long as you do it in a way that is in the birds’ best interests. Pretty, mass-marketed birdhouses or fanciful home-crafted ones often are inhospitable, even dangerous, to the birds you may want to attract; such structures have perches and hole sizes that allow predators easy access or are constructed so that they cannot be opened to permit nest monitoring and cleaning. These common design flaws, coupled with irregular or no monitoring, a poor location (a raccoon-friendly fencepost, a yard filled with house sparrows) and the absence of predator guards will doom your well-intentioned efforts to failure.
Sauer discourages raccoons by attaching a circle of wire, “almost a tunnel,” around the nest hole, to let the birds in but keep prying paws out. These have proved successful, says Sauer; he’s even observed fledglings sitting in the tunnel, preparing to fly. House sparrows will attack nest inhabitants – Sauer has seen them “pounce on the female and rip off her head.” He monitors his boxes weekly during the nesting season (mid-April to mid-June), and cleans them out once the brood has left.
“I say, do it right or don’t do it all,” echoes Don Wills of Caledonia in southwestern Ontario, who runs the largest bluebird trail – with 430 nest boxes – in Ontario. He has also worked with the province’s Prothonotary Warbler Recovery Team, a joint effort of Birds Studies Canada, MNR and the Canadian Wildlife Service, with 200 nest boxes in and around Rondeau Provincial Park, the area that is this Carolinian bird’s northern range. (The endangered prothonotary warbler has struggled to maintain its numbers for many years – only seven breeding pairs were seen in Ontario in 2006. The recovery team’s nest box program is critical to the bird’s survival.)
Wills is frustrated by the amount of poor information and improper box installation he sees. “You can have the best box in the world, but if you don’t set it up properly and monitor it, it’s useless.”
Having birds nest near your home provides not only the pleasure of watching and listening to them, but other benefits too. Insect-eating species such as tree swallows, for example, help keep the mosquito population down.
Wills says he never tires of seeing the bluebirds that now overwinter near his home. He has also found eastern screech-owls and even a northern saw-whet owl in one of his wood duck nest boxes, the first such sighting in Wills’s woodlot in more than 100 years. As for the prothonotary warbler, “they are the neatest bird,” he says. “Such fierce little guy[s], they’ll bomb the tree swallow – and they’re so dedicated to feeding their young.”
With ongoing nest box conservation efforts and dedicated volunteers, the future of these and other species may well keep getting brighter.
Moira Farr is a freelance writer and editor based in Ottawa.