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Woman makes a difference to bluebirds

August 30, 2002|by RICHARD BELISLE

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - It's because of the efforts of people like Joyce Stuff that Pennsylvania's bluebirds are making a comeback, state Game Commission officials say.

Stuff, who lives with her husband, Carl, on their dairy farm on Renninger Road, regularly walks a 4.5-mile route to check her 86 bluebird nesting boxes.

She counts the eggs, watches which ones hatch, then keeps her eye on the fledglings to see how many survive to adulthood and fly away in the fall.


Stuff keeps meticulous records, which she sends to the Pennsylvania Bluebird Society, a statewide organization of 800 active members that tracks bluebird populations across the state.

According to society records, 1,108 bluebirds fledged - grew to adulthood - out of 854 boxes across Pennsylvania in 1988. Last year, according to records, the number jumped to 3,830 birds that made it.

State game commission records show that more than 32,000 bluebirds have fledged in the last 20 years. There is no accurate count on the number of bluebirds in Pennsylvania.

Stuff said she counted about 400 eggs in her boxes this summer. She estimates that fewer than 100 hatched and survived to adulthood.

"Some eggs don't hatch, sparrows destroyed some nests so they could take them over themselves. Cats, raccoons and snakes got some, too," she said.

She said she lost about 40 eggs in May because of late frosts.

Game Commission ornithologists blame suburban development, habitat changes, the loss of fenceposts and trees on the edges of farm fields for nesting and the destruction of nests by sparrows and other birds, for the decline in Pennsylvania's Eastern bluebird population.

"No doubt about it. From a conservation standpoint, they were in trouble, but we have seen a dramatic turnaround," said Daniel Brauning, a Game Commission ornithologist.

Stuff put up her first 10 bluebird houses in 1986 and started to keep records of her sightings. This year she added six new houses for a total of 86, she said.

She said 1994 was her best year so far. "I didn't lose one baby. I fledged 123 that year," she said.

She puts many boxes back-to-back to attract tree swallows as well. Bluebirds and swallows eat insects, but don't compete for the available food, Stuff said. "Bluebirds eat bugs on the ground. Swallows catch them in the air," she said.

Carl Stuff said many bluebirds around his farm no longer fly south for the winter. He said they flock up and head for a nearby cedar grove that provides them shelter from the wind and cold as well as berries off the trees for food.

"Winters have been milder here in recent years so more bluebirds stay around," he said.

Just because the bluebird population is on the upswing is no reason for people to stop monitoring their bluebird trails, said Kathy Clark, president of the Pennsylvania Bluebird Society.

"People should not abandon their boxes," she said. "They need to keep them in repair. If the trails disappear, the bluebirds will disappear. It's a question of one person making a difference."

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