These photographs were captured just after sunrise on Capability Farm. In addition to a bluebird pair, I observed this nest box attracting several different species in early spring, making it a prime location for a stakeout. Many people in the local naturalist community, including followers of the Capability Farm Facebook page, build and maintain bluebird boxes. I hoped to showcase the beauty of the species and their connection to those conservation efforts at a time when everyone was really anxious for a new season. I captured the photos from a blind using a DSLR and telephoto lens on a tripod. Later they were processed in Lightroom and the title text was added in Photoshop.
Southeast Indiana couple volunteer to save bluebirds
Published August 15, 2019 in The Versailles Republican (Ripley Publishing Company newspapers)
By Jared D. Rogers, assistant editor
“A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. Even now, the royal blue, year-round residents of Indiana still have fans as ardent as the famed Walden pond dweller. Now, though, the bluebird depends on enthusiasts for a better chance at survival, since their population significantly diminished in the early 20th century.
One southeastern Indiana couple, Tom Cooney and Marty Mullin of Brookville, could certainly write a riveting account of bluebird life that Thoreau would enjoy. Since 2003, the couple, along with the help of other volunteers, have established and monitored nest boxes for eastern bluebirds in Brookville’s town park. Their effort comes as part of their volunteerism as regional coordinators for the Indiana Bluebird Society.
Looking back, Tom says of the endeavor, “We were nuts!” They got started on the project thanks to grant funding from the Franklin County Community Foundation. Then, students at Franklin County High School built the boxes that are now spaced 100 yards apart from each other in the park, in pairings of two boxes that are spaced about 20 yards apart.
That spacing gives the site the best chance at having multiple bluebird nests going at once. As for the 100 yard distance, that is due to the fact that the birds maintain roughly that amount of space around their nest as feeding territory. As for the 20 yard pairing, bluebirds compete with tree swallows for nest cavities. Placing two boxes inside of the same feeding territory raises the chance that if tree swallows claim one box, bluebirds can still claim the other. Once each bird has its own box, they get along just fine. “Bluebirds like to eat insects off of the ground, while tree swallows eat insects in the air,” Cooney says of their shared territory.
As Cooney and Mullin continued their project year after year, the Whitewater Canal Trail, Inc. group caught on and began sponsoring their efforts beginning in 2011. Looking at the data the couple has kept, the project really seemed to take off around that time, too. Compared to 79 fledglings counted in the inaugural year, 2003, 168 chicks fledged in 2012. In 2014, eight volunteers helped maintain 110 boxes in the park along the Whitewater Canal Trail.
Population numbers for bluebirds seemed to hit their lows in the 1960s and ’70s, due to a combination of habitat loss, increased pesticide use, and the introduction of invasive species. As secondary cavity nesters, the birds already had specific and somewhat fragile habitat needs before human development tipped the scales too far for them. A “secondary cavity nester” is a bird that uses a hole in a tree (or something similar like a fence post) that has been carved out by another animal or force of nature, like a woodpecker. The National Bluebird Society, and the state-level organizations that followed, were born from concern regarding the disappearing bluebird.
While tree swallows and bluebirds can co-inhabit an area, house sparrows and starlings introduced from Europe are a true threat. The English house sparrow was originally brought to the United States in the 19th century in a misguided attempt to control insects. When it comes to nesting sites, the birds are exceptionally aggressive. They will kill bluebirds and destroy eggs before stealing the site for their own nest. Because of this behavior, they are the only bird in Indiana not protected by law, and the birds, their eggs, and nests may be eradicated as needed.
European starlings were also introduced in the late 19th century. There is some debate as to whether they were released to control insects or by fans of Shakespeare who wanted to populate the United States with all of the birds mentioned in the poet’s work. Either way, they now flourish here. As for protecting bluebirds, the best way to keep starlings out of their nest sites is to make sure the hole of the box is too small for them to enter. Even then, the pesky critters will try to gnaw away at the holes in an attempt to gain entry. Besides these unwelcome flyers, the boxes maintained by Cooney and Mullin's crew use PVC baffles on the poles to keep out other predators like raccoons, mice, snakes, and opossums.
It’s not all a battle against the unwanted, though. Mullin shares that chickadees and house wrens also use the nest boxes. She has learned over the years which type of bird is in which box just by looking at the nest. Bluebirds create a classic “cup” style of nest, often with pine needles, kept pretty neat in terms of the construction prowess of a wild bird. “Chickadees use a lot of moss incorporated in their nests,” Mullin says, and tree swallows like feathers. House wrens, opposite of the tidy bluebird, create a disheveled mess of twigs to call home.
As for the couples’ favorite species, the male bluebird begins the yearly nesting ritual by selecting a site in early spring. He hopes that his selection attracts a female, and if so, the female will lay 3-5 eggs that are either blue or white colored. The female incubates the eggs for about two weeks, and then both parents spend the next three weeks feeding the fast-growing chicks. Eventually, the parents lure the chicks out of the nest with food, bringing it close but not feeding it to the juveniles, so they are coerced to hop out and learn to find their own food. After they fledge, the birds do it over again, sometimes up to three times in one season. The whole process takes place between late March and late September. By the first of October, the crew shifts from monitoring the boxes and counting eggs and fledglings to cleaning them out for the next season.
While nesting takes place, volunteers check the boxes about once per week. They carry a clipboard to take notes, and the data is later entered into a spreadsheet which is sent to the Indiana Bluebird Society at the end of each year. Using this meticulous approach, the crew provides quality data that they hope will help further their efforts to help bluebirds rebound from population decline and live on for future generations to enjoy.
Though Cooney says they were crazy to take on the project, the couple is providing a valuable service to their community, both humans and animals alike. Thanks to their efforts, community members can enjoy the colors, sounds, and antics of the eastern bluebird. For lovers of the outdoors, there’s nothing quite like watching a pretty bird and listening to it sing its bright song.