Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of a bluebird © John & Flomena Larson

Bluebirds are a symbol of happiness and optimism.
© John & Flomena Larson

June 2010

Bluebirds on the rebound

Continuing commitment by a growing number of volunteers helps bluebird populations recover in Wisconsin.

Kent D. Hall

What's not to like about bluebirds? They are a symbol of happiness, optimism and are celebrated in song as the Bluebird of Happiness, the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah bird on your shoulder and even flying Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Moreover, eastern bluebird populations are on the rise in Wisconsin, but that wasn't always the case.

In the late 70s and 80s bluebirds plunged to alarmingly low numbers. Ice storms on their wintering grounds, a loss of nesting habitat and poor nesting success up north contributed to a 90 percent reduction in bluebirds here in less than 50 years.

Alarmed about this situation, Wisconsin DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources approached citizen groups around the state back in the winter of 1986 to stimulate interest in starting an artificial nest box program to bring back this imperiled species. As a result of that meeting, the Bluebird Restoration Association of WI (BRAW) formed in March 1986 to build some help for bluebirds.

There was natural support. Bluebirds are brilliant and beautiful, especially the males. They are early spring migrants and seeing them in March helps us break the psychological grip of winter. Also, they are easy to see and recognize. Many species are secretive and flit around in the bushes, but bluebirds are open area birds that "perch hunt" for food. They are amazingly tolerant of humans while they are nesting. They invite us into their lives and make it easy to seal a friendship.

In the 23 years since BRAW was formed, the blue bird population has made an astounding recovery and is now at a 45-year high. This recovery is due, in part, to a cadre of concerned citizens putting up and monitoring nest boxes and represents the greatest recovery of a songbird population in Wisconsin conservation history, largely because people cared about this beautiful bird.

The population recovery parallels reports we get from BRAW members who monitor and track bluebird production from the nest boxes they build and place. In fact, Wisconsin leads the nation in rebuilding the bluebird population from artificial nest boxes. It's not because we have naturally higher populations than other areas of the country, but we do a lot of research and share what's working with those who want to bring bluebirds back. We learned that bluebirds are territorial and need at least one to three acres and up to 20 acres of land to collect food. Other cavity nesters like tree swallows protect only the nest box area and can forage up to four miles in all directions for food. Nest boxes placed closer together than 100 yards favor the colonial nature of tree swallows and limit occupancy by bluebirds.

In our first 20 years of collecting data BRAW has determined which factors are most important for increasing bluebird production: 1. nest box location, 2. spacing between boxes, 3. relocation if the birds don't produce young, 4. the direction the nest box opening faces, 5. nest box design, and 6. predator guards.

Photo of Audubon Society members putting up a nest box © Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin
Jenny Wenzel and Helen Pugh (left to right) of the Hoy Audubon Society put up a bluebird nest box along Maplecrest Country Club in Kenosha County.
© Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin

See Informational Packet: Attracting Eastern Bluebirds & other cavity nesters. The gist of our recommendations is summarized in Table 4.

In the fall of 2006, BRAW started "Operation: Top State" (OTS), a program to apply the research techniques we discovered in our first 19 years to increase bluebird production. The program has been a huge success by increasing the number of nest boxes statewide, encouraging better management of those artificial nest boxes, and more diligently monitoring nesting success. The number of nest boxes monitored has increased by 2,678 (44%) and bluebird production has increased 37% by 7,767 birds. Many more people are monitoring nest boxes than ever before. We've increased that number 24% adding another 355 people to our monitoring network.

You might think that we could rest on our laurels, take down our nest boxes and move on to other matters, but that is not the case. Populations of bluebirds are still low compared to other common cavity nesters. There are two-and-a-half times as many chickadees, three-and-a-half times as many tree swallows and four times as many wrens as bluebirds. Moreover, of the three species, the bluebird is highly vulnerable to mortality in its overwintering habitat. Ice storms in the southern United States, where bluebirds overwinter, will continue to decimate these birds, so conservation measures will continue to be necessary.

Another initiative is equally important to BRAW: conservation education for youth. Over the past two years, BRAW members have worked to establish nest box trails and bird monitoring programs for elementary, middle school and high school students, 4-H clubs and nature centers.

In school and nature center settings, we know that some of the nest boxes will be placed in habitat that is also appealing to tree swallows, chickadees and wrens as well as to bluebirds. The educational value of helping build nest boxes, installing boxes and especially collecting data as birds complete their nesting cycles is exceptional. A bigger challenge for school groups may be that the natural growth cycles for swallows and wrens are not completed by the time school gets out. Summer school groups sometimes continue the monitoring, however.

Along the way, school groups monitoring these boxes learn how one misconception about bluebirds is a myth. The notion that opening nest boxes once per week to count baby birds and eggs will automatically cause the parents to abandon the nest is simply not true. In fact, eggs and chicks can be viewed without causing rejection by the parents. That's just one of the lessons I learned myself. Despite three college degrees, I'd have to say that when I started monitoring nest boxes eight years ago, my bluebird education was at the elementary school level. Although my knowledge has increased exponentially since then, I am still learning to think like a bluebird.

I invite others interested in becoming a bluebird monitor or learning more about bluebirds to join us at Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. You'll find plenty of contacts for more information by clicking on the contacts list in the navigation listing on the left side of the site. Spend a few minutes poking around and you will also find information on how to start a bluebird trail program, directions for building and siting nest boxes and details about bird life cycles. Find monitoring forms for reporting your sightings, see bluebird merchandise and discover links to outstanding bluebird photos. Please share the happiness we've found in watching and encouraging more bluebirds.

Kent D. Hall coordinates data collection and analysis for the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin.