Blue Skies for Bluebirds

bluebirdsOnce common, then increasingly rare, Montana’s three bluebird species have made a remarkable comeback in recent years thanks to a growing legion of nest-box-building devotees. By Becky Lomax

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
July–August 2006

They are called bluebirds of happiness for a reason. Many avian species possess lovely songs or vivid plumage, but there’s something about bluebirds that inspires unparalleled joy and devotion among their fans. Bluebirders say they love the bird’s bright color, enchanting song, association with the countryside, and, perhaps most appealing, tolerance for human presence. Bluebirds, considered among the friendliest of all birds (not to mention harbingers of spring), will often nest near homes and don’t even mind having their nest boxes monitored. In songs, poetry, film, and literature, these seemingly carefree cousins to the American robin are associated with happiness, hope, and good times.

“Bluebirds are magical,” says Bob Niebuhr, president of Mountain Bluebird Trails, Inc. (MBT), a cavity-nesting-bird conservation group based in Ronan.

It wasn’t long ago that Niebuhr and other bluebird devotees became alarmed as bluebird numbers began declining. Aggressive birds, predators, and the human removal of nesting trees combined to push bluebirds from their traditional habitat. Since then, a small but growing number of bluebird advocates have been working to build and protect nesting sites and reduce threats, restoring the cobalt-colored flyers to both new and traditional sites across Montana’s landscape.

Bluebird basics
Montana is one of only a few states to attract all three bluebird species: mountain, western, and eastern. Mountain bluebirds range statewide, western bluebirds are found mainly in the northwestern corner, and eastern bluebirds are confined to the far southeast. Members of the thrush family, all three species are easily recognized by their blue color. Slightly slimmer than the other two species, male mountain bluebirds are completely blue—and the blue is lighter and more vivid—except for a pale gray underbelly. The male western has a blue throat, back, wings, and belly and an orange chest and shoulders; the male eastern looks similar except the throat is orange and the belly is white. Females of all three species are paler versions of the males.

Bluebirds nest in tree or other wood cavities made by woodpeckers. Daytime ground feeders, bluebirds frequent open areas such as pastures, golf courses, cemeteries, and treeless shortgrass fields to find insects, which comprise most of their diet. Grasshoppers are a favored food.

After wintering in Mexico or the southwestern United States, bluebirds fly north to Montana in late February and early March. (Every year, MBT awards a sweatshirt to the first member sighting any of the three bluebird species in the Treasure State.)

Similar to the behavior of the other bluebirds, the mountain bluebird male establishes his territory, usually encompassing 12 acres, then sings and performs a flight display to attract a female. Often returning to the same site each year, the female builds the nest using grass, exposed plant roots, and hair. She lines it with feathers before laying five to six light blue eggs between late March and May.

The female incubates the eggs for roughly two weeks, after which the chicks hatch. Helpless, blind, and featherless, the chicks mutate immediately into food-demanding monsters requiring three feedings per daylight hour. In May and June, the hatchlings fledge (grow flight feathers) and soon are able to catch their own prey. If bad weather, aggressive birds, or predators don’t hinder their attempts, the bluebird pair may hatch a second clutch, which fledges by mid-July.

Bluebird threats
In the mid-1800s, house sparrows and European starlings came to North America with immigrants on ships from across the Atlantic Ocean. As these aggressive bird species spread west, bluebirds throughout the New World suffered a housing crisis. Sparrows and starlings take over tree cavities, leaving bluebirds out in the cold. Sparrows even kill bluebirds, constructing a new nest on top of a bluebird’s. Starlings also threaten bluebirds by consuming the berries bluebirds eat in winter. Unable to adapt to the newcomers, bluebird populations dropped.

Unwittingly, humans worsened the bluebird’s demise. Historically, bluebirds thrived in the woodpecker-carved cavities of standing dead trees, called snags. But as more and more people moving into the countryside cut down snags for firewood, those habitats soon disappeared.

“We tend to clean up our world,” says Kristi DuBois, coordinator of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Native Species Program. “If there’s a dead tree, people want to cut it down immediately.”

Other human-caused threats to bluebirds include widespread use of agricultural pesticides, which kill insects the birds eat, and rural sprawl, which replaces open countryside with fenced backyards and paved driveways.

Hawks, raccoons, weasels, bears, snakes, magpies, crows, jays, and many other predators eat bluebirds. As ground feeders, bluebirds are easy targets. And many predators can easily climb trees and snatch fledglings from a bluebird nesting cavity. Rural cats are especially troublesome. According to the American Bird Conservancy, a single free-roaming cat kills an average of 20 songbirds per year.

Bluebird recovery
Though people had been building and erecting nesting boxes for decades, help formally arrived for Montana’s struggling bluebird population in 1974. That’s when the late Art Aylesworth of Ronan, known as “the bluebird man,” teamed up with bluebird advocates Art and Duncan Mackintosh from Alberta to form MBT. The organization promotes bluebird conservation through education, nest box programs, and research. Across Montana, members monitor 6,800 nest boxes, which have produced more than 176,000 bluebirds over the past decade.

The grassroots organization relies on individuals who build their own bluebird nest “trails,” a series of at least five boxes placed 100 to 300 yards apart, depending on the species. The bluebirders monitor nesting and hatching activity, then report their findings to a local MBT or North American Bluebird Society coordinator. Some members oversee hundreds of nest boxes, but most monitor shorter trails of five to ten. The nest boxes are visible on fence lines surrounding open areas, usually on posts roughly 4 feet above ground.

To help promote bluebird conservation, Montana FWP has provided MBT with $8,000 in grants over the past two years. The money helps pay for distributing bluebird house plans and building materials to county extension offices. The funds also underwrite educational videos, slideshows, books, pamphlets, and a speaker’s bureau. According to Niebuhr, the group gives several dozen presentations in Montana each year, from classrooms to grain- and stockgrower’s conventions.

“The response from ranchers and farmers has been great,” he says. “In the past three years, we’ve had 35 new members put up their own bluebird boxes or allowed others to maintain nest boxes on their property.”

As testament to how avidly Montanans are working to conserve bluebirds, Ervin Davis of Charlo was named Volunteer of the Year in 2005 by the National Wildlife Refuge System. At the National Bison Range in Moiese, Davis monitors bluebird nest boxes, bands western and mountain bluebirds, and holds education programs.

Coexisting with cattle
Tucker Hughes doesn’t build or tend nest boxes. But since 1992 the central Montana rancher has permitted Niebuhr to maintain a trail of nearly 100 of the structures on the ranch’s prime mountain bluebird habitat. “Bluebirds are an enjoyable part of the ranch,” says Hughes. “And if they eat one fly, it’s a benefit.”

Cows and bluebirds coexist well. The grazers keep grass short so the birds can find insects, and the birds gobble up annoying flying bugs. According to Niebuhr, a single family of bluebirds will eat 4,000 insects in one summer.

However, cattle can wreak havoc on nest boxes. Ideally, the structures should be placed on the side of a fencepost facing east so that spring blizzards, which usually come from the southwest, don’t wallop chicks. But on cattle ranches, the boxes must be placed in line with the fence wire to prevent cows (which rub against anything sticking out from a post) from knocking them down. Hughes laughs as he recalls how Niebuhr lost several boxes to itchy cattle. “Bob learned the hard way,” he says.

Another way to help bluebirds, says DuBois, is to leave snags standing. “People who want firewood should cut trees that are already downed rather than felling upright snags that may hold prime nesting real estate,” she says. DuBois also urges cat owners to keep their feline pets housebound, on a leash, or within fenced cat runs.

Blue sky future
Niebuhr believes the future of Montana bluebirds looks sunny. “There’s increasing interest in bluebirds, attracting people from every walk of life,” he says. “Bluebirds are not going to become extinct anytime soon.” Membership in MBT alone has tripled in the last four years to more than 600 people hailing from Montana’s far corners and out of state. Since 1990, the group’s members have helped parent birds produce an average of roughly 18,000 bluebirds each year, twice what it averaged in the 1980s. Federal North American bird surveys have shown a steady increase in bluebird populations in Montana and other states over the past 25 years.

One indication of the growing energy behind bluebird conservation is the publication of an updated version of the bluebird “bible.” Bluebirders consider Myrna Pearman’s Mountain Bluebird Trail Monitoring Guide an indispensable booklet. The slim guide is packed with bluebird facts and directions on how to build boxes and maintain a bluebird trail. Pearman, an Alberta biologist, also provides contact addresses and clarifies current laws and regulations regarding bluebird trail monitoring.

“Bluebirds aren’t pets,” she says. “Regulations exist for what can and cannot be done legally.” As is the case for other migratory birds, all three bluebird species are protected under the Migratory Bird Protection Act. Though bluebirds can become accustomed to humans, she says, it is illegal to handle them without a permit.

Pearman sees bluebird conservation as a growing grassroots activity in Montana and Alberta. “The future of bluebirds is fairly secure. More and more people are getting involved, and nest box programs are helping local bluebird populations.”

Considering how much joy bluebirds bring to people across this region, that’s news to put a smile on anyone’s face.Bear bullet

Becky Lomax is a freelance writer in Whitefish.

A $15 family membership in Mountain Bluebird Trails gets you a copy of Myrna Pearman’s guide as well as supplies for starting nest boxes. You can reach MBT at mountainbluebirdtrails.com or (406) 676-0300, the North American Bluebird Society at nabluebirdsociety.org or (866) 517-4483, and the American Bird Conservancy at abcbirds.org or (540) 253-5780.

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