Bluebirds in the Red River Gorge
Last year Craig and I had the wonderful opportunity to sponsor and attend the Wild and Scenic film festival held in Morehead, KY. There were many great films throughout the evening, but the one that stood out as the most inspirational to me was the story of The Bluebird Man.
Alfred Larson, the 91-year-old citizen scientist of the 30-minute film, has spent the last 35 years of his life building, monitoring and maintaining over 300 nest boxes for bluebirds in the Owyhee Mountains of Idaho. In those 35 years, he has witnessed over 27,000 bluebirds grow from egg to fledging, banding each of them with a unique federal ID number for future monitoring efforts.
Why is this important, you may ask?
Ecosystems need a balance to survive. You may have heard of invasive plants…think of kudzu. Well, there are a variety of invasive species, not just plants, which create havoc upon our natural landscapes. Invasive species are usually a species that has been introduced into an ecosystem for a variety of reasons; erosion stability, aesthetics, accidental, to name a few. Whatever the reason, once introduced, invasive species can have the ability to outcompete native species, leading to a decline in the native population. This usually happens because once introduced, invasive species do not have the usual check and balance, predator and prey system in place as they did in their home territory. They are able to reproduce and flourish without boundaries.
So, what do invasive species have to do with bluebirds?
One of the main reasons why the bluebird population plummeted is due to a lack of nesting habitat. Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters. They use pre-existing holes to raise their offspring. Unfortunately, European Starlings utilize the same habitat. European Starlings were first brought to North America in 1890 by Shakespeare enthusiasts. At that time about 60 common starlings were released in New York. Now, the population has grown in number to over 150 million. Starlings, along with other birds, compete with Bluebirds for nesting cavities. Due to the rise in Starling population, bluebirds have been outcompeted for a place to safely nest eggs for future populations.
That is where people like Al Larson step in. Scientists and bluebird lovers started to notice a dramatic decline in the bluebird population in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. In 1978, the North American Bluebird Society was established. This group encouraged people to set up nest boxes specifically designed for bluebirds. This movement allowed the bluebirds to make a comeback and begin to reestablish their natural populations. But it is an uphill battle.
What can you do to help the bluebirds?
Reestablishing the bluebird population is an ongoing process. To succeed, generations of people need to get involved with building and monitoring bluebird nesting boxes. “Bluebird conservationists must find a way to motivate younger generations to continue the important work of monitoring and maintaining nest boxes for these birds or else this dramatic recovery could be lost.”
How you can get involved.
You can visit the Gladie center in the Red River Gorge for their Building for Bluebirds program. On March 25th, 2017 learn how to build bluebird boxes from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. At this free event, you will learn how to build a bluebird nesting box and get to take it home so you can help bluebirds where you live. If you are unable to make it to this event, you can find plans on how to build nesting boxes (here). You can also check out the North American Bluebird Society website to learn more and even become a citizen scientist.