A Lafayette County Bluebird Society trail hike attracts kids and adults.
Bluebirds brought them together
The result is a nature center in southwest Wisconsin with a focus on the future.
In the spring of 1981, a small group of environmentally–focused citizens from Darlington gathered at the United Methodist Church to organize a bluebird club. It's doubtful that anyone at the time had the vision that the event would lead, 32 years later, to a nature center in Darlington. But that's just what happened.
In the late 1970s, the eastern bluebird was a rare sight in Wisconsin. The June 1979 Breeding Bird Survey revealed a troublesome number — just 22 bluebirds were observed in the entire state.
Disturbed by this news, an avid birder from Darlington, Ruth Reinoehl, contacted beginning birders, me and my husband, John, and encouraged us to put up bird boxes to offer a nesting place for the lovely birds. Subsequently, my husband and I, along with our four children, organized a meeting for citizens who shared our concern. Thirteen people answered the call and on March 7, 1981, met to inaugurate the Darlington Bluebird Society. Lawrence Zeleny's book, "The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight for Survival" was used as a guide and each member was encouraged to build and install nest boxes for the bluebirds.
To gauge the success of the boxes, each person was instructed to monitor the boxes during the season. Eager blue birders made boxes from scrap wood and plastic milk jugs and attached them to wooden and steel posts along rural fence rows. Some boxes were nailed to trees. As the summer wore on, the members reported most boxes were being used by house wrens and house sparrows. An eastern bluebird or two were sighted, but the excitement ensued when one pair nested in a wooden box and five eggs were laid.
Years later, when the membership grew to outside of the Darlington area, the club was renamed the Lafayette County Bluebird Society. At that time, through citizen–science activity, improvements were made in techniques for placing boxes and in box design. In 2012, over 1,000 bluebirds successfully fledged from 18 trails across Lafayette County. It was a true success story for the bluebirds and the Lafayette County Bluebird Society.
The success of the bluebirds' recovery led me to wonder if more could be done to stimulate interest in nature in the county.
In 2012, I approached the Lafayette County Bluebird Society's Board of Directors with the idea of creating a nature center that would offer educational and interpretive displays, and programs that focused on birds, plants, animals, and the ecosystem of Lafayette County and southwestern Wisconsin. My goal was to teach the value of protecting and preserving the natural resources of the region, known as the Driftless Area, by heightening awareness of young and old alike. The board agreed to the idea, and it was included in the society's long–range plan.
The Bluebird Nest Nature Center opened its doors to the public on March 29, 2014. Located at 308 Main Street, Darlington, the center is open for business 1 to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. It is managed by Sue Cashman, a retired elementary school teacher, and staffed by volunteers. The center features interpretive displays, a touch table, a kids' corner with books, DVDs and more. On sale items include nest boxes, predator guards, mealworms and handcrafted items.
Monthly programs have included guest speakers covering topics such as southwest Wisconsin mammals, bird photography, prairie plants, birds, butterflies, common trees, fossils and fish.
Lafayette County is located in the southwest corner of the state in the tri–county area. It is known as the Driftless Area, due to the absence of glaciers during the last ice age. The gently rolling hills and quiet countryside are draws for retirees from the large cities who come seeking a rural lifestyle, clean air and water and friendly people. The idea of installing a nest box and getting beautiful bluebirds to settle down on the property is often mentioned by realtors as a selling point. It is not unusual to have a pair of bluebirds build a nest and start preparing for a family shortly after a new box is installed.
Around 180 years ago, Lafayette County was covered with prairie grasses and oak savannas. The Native Americans who lived here called these prairies "wase–skis–sink," meaning "shining prairies" referencing the golden tall grasses that waved and glimmered in the sun. Today, less than 1 percent of the original Wisconsin prairies exist, and a few remnants are in Lafayette County. Enlightening citizens to the importance of preserving and protecting the remaining places and bird and animal species, encouraging people to plant and care for new prairies and protecting our water by limiting soil and waste runoff are Bluebird Nest Nature Center goals.
Cashman includes youth in the program lineup by offering bluebird trail hikes, after school programs, workshops and a summer school nature club. The interpretive displays are user–friendly and fun. Owls, insects, fossils, the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, purple martins, Yellowstone Lake State Park and endangered species are some of the displays awaiting visitors.
It might be a coincidence, but the opening of the Bluebird Nest Nature Center fell in the same year as the 100th anniversary of the death of the last known passenger pigeon. Still, the timing isn't lost on me. Eastern bluebird sightings in the state numbered in the 20s in 1979. Their numbers are strong now. But who knows what the future has in store?
The volunteers who staff the Bluebird Nest Nature Center want to make sure bluebirds don't succumb to the same tragic fate as the passenger pigeon. We invite visitors to come and spend an afternoon enjoying the displays and take home a nest box for the bluebird of happiness.
Carol McDaniel is president of the Lafayette County Bluebird Society, Inc.