Woman studies bluebirds in Mercersburg

May 14, 2001

Woman studies bluebirds in Mercersburg

Mercersburg, Pa.

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

Joyce Stuff sees the bluebirds that flit around her farm fields as being as crucial to human survival as canaries were in coal mines.

In the old days miners brought canaries deep into their mines. When a bird died they knew the air in the shaft was getting too dangerous for humans to breathe.

Stuff, 59, thinks bluebirds can issue a similar warning about the chemicals farmers spread on their fields - pesticides, herbicides and insecticides.


Although some bluebirds die each year from the chemicals, more than enough survive to keep the species viable, Stuff said. That is proven in the birds that are hatched in her boxes each spring.

"I feel that if they can survive the chemicals that are put on the ground then we'll be able to survive, too," she said.

Survival is not the big reason why Stuff has been traipsing along farm lanes for the last 18 springs checking on bluebird boxes nailed to fence posts. She knows her efforts help protect the birds so they can flourish in their natural habitat.

The boxes, made mostly by retired men who build them as a hobby, are set on posts about 300 feet apart. Stuff's trail, spread over her farm and three contiguous farms, has 75 boxes. She started her trail with six boxes in 1983.

Stuff said she never saw a bluebird until she was 40 years old. She found out about bluebird trails and decided to try one of her own.

"My husband, Carl, said I was crazy, that I would never attract any bluebirds," she said. "Usually he's right. This is the only time I've ever proved him wrong."

Stuff said she's seen a definite increase in the number of bluebirds on her trail over the years.

"The boxes do help," she said. "Look at us. We just walked about 100 yards down this lane to the first box and we already saw a nesting pair. That's remarkable."

Stuff keeps careful records in a notebook. The data starts with an empty nest in each box in the early spring, then she records the number of eggs, then the hatchlings and finally the fledglings that leave the nest.

An average clutch is four to five eggs, she said. They hatch in about 14 days. It takes 18 to 21 days for the birds to be old enough to leave the nest.

"Bluebirds like to have a tree within 25 feet of the box so the fledglings can fly into it for safety," she said.

At the end of the hatching season Stuff compiles her notes and sends the results to the National Blue Bird Society in Darlington, Wisc., which keeps tabs on the birds' population trends. Society officials could not be reached for comment.

Stuff also belongs to the Pennsylvania Blue Bird Society.

Stuff said her trail has taught her about things far beyond bluebirds. She's learned about tree swallows, also deep cavity nesters.

She's trying to attract the swallows by putting boxes back-to-back with the bluebird boxes. A nesting pair of swallows was seen flying around the first stop on her blue bird trail.

She has also learned that other birds kill bluebirds and destroy their nests so they can use the boxes for their own eggs. Chief among the culprits are English and European sparrows and starlings, she said.

She said she is authorized to destroy any sparrow or starling nests she finds in her bluebird boxes.

Predators that take their toll on bluebirds are snakes, raccoons and feral cats.

"All of the cats on my farm are spayed and neutered," she said.

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