Want bluebirds? Offer them a place to nest

January 06, 2008|By ASHLEY HARTMAN

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Joyce Stuff has been monitoring bluebird nest boxes for more than 25 years. And as the Franklin County coordinator of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania, she is trying to increase this practice because it ultimately will increase bluebird numbers, which are at critical levels.

One of the ways Stuff hopes to do that is through bluebird workshops - such as the one Saturday at the Franklin County Extension Office. She has been running the workshops since 2002.

"The most important person is you," Stuff said. "The more boxes we have in Franklin County, the more bluebirds we'll have."

The North American bluebird population began declining in the 1900s and reached critical population status by the mid-20th century because of habitat loss, introduction of non-native house sparrows and European starlings, and pesticide use.


"I fledge 75 to 100 bluebirds a year, (and) I need other people to put boxes up to handle the excess," Stuff said.

About 30 people attended the workshop, which provided information about how to set up nesting boxes, monitor nesting boxes, keep predators away and other techniques for attracting bluebirds to the boxes.

"Bluebirds are very dependent on man for survival," Stuff said.

That's because bluebirds are cavity nesters, but they do not create their own cavities. With the loss of fields, nesting cavities in split-rail fences and the clearing of dead trees, bluebirds are losing natural nesting cavities and must rely on man-made ones, Stuff said.

Stuff said to place a nest box in an open area. Some common types of bluebird nest boxes are the standard nest box, Troyers' Sparrow-Resistant Bluebird house, Peterson Bluebird house and PVC box.

Discourage predators

The sparrow-resistant nest box is important because house sparrows are aggressive and intelligent and will peck bluebirds to death, Stuff said.

"House sparrows are vicious to our native cavity birds," Stuff said. "A house sparrow's nest is not neat - it's junk."

Stuff said if a person sees a nest that is messy, it likely is a house sparrow's nest and it should be thrown in the trash.

"(Bluebirds) all start with a whimsy little circle of grasses," Stuff said. "She will have this compact nest (and) you'll know it's a bluebird."

Other ways to discourage house sparrows from using nest boxes are to use a Gilbertson PVC box, which sparrows seem reluctant to use, using in-box trapping, such as the Huber-style trap, and regularly monitoring nest boxes for evidence of house sparrows.

Keeping house sparrows from her nesting boxes was the main reason Debby Caracciolo of Chambersburg came to the workshop.

"We have bluebirds, and we've had them for years," Caracciolo said.

She has had nesting boxes on her property for at least 15 years.

"We have a problem with house sparrows breaking the eggs, killing the babies of bluebirds," she said. "In the beginning, we had very successful nests."

Caracciolo said she learned about the in-box traps used to catch house sparrows and though that was interesting.

In placing bluebird nest boxes, it is important to know that bluebirds like low vegetation with insects running below, Stuff said. In the summer, bluebirds only eat insects, and in the winter, they eat berries.

Nest boxes should be 25 feet from a nearby bush or small tree, Stuff said.

"When you mount your box, keep it at eye level," Stuff said. However, if you are 6 feet tall or more, the box should be lower than eye level. The boxes also should be 300 feet apart. The hole of the box nest should face north or east so the box does not overheat.

Bluebirds begin nesting in April, and boxes should be monitored weekly from April to the beginning of August, Stuff said. Boxes also should be checked for any signs of house sparrows or other predators, such as snakes, raccoons and cats.

"The nesting cycle is 35 to 40 days," Stuff said. Adult bluebirds build a nest and lay eggs. The eggs hatch and babies are in the nest for 18 to 21 days.

"There's nothing more beautiful than this ... see those little creatures inside," Stuff said.

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