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Monitoring Bluebirds
"Box 19" - by Jane Morf

Box 19 was just like any of our other nest boxes. Painted pale gray-blue and measuring about 4.5" x 4.5" x 9", it occupied the eucalyptus tree near the handball courts. My husband Woody and I gave it the same amount of diligent attention and care as the other 25 boxes on our Western Bluebird trail at Craig Park, in Brea, CA. In the three years since the box was first hung by bluebirder par excellence Dick Purvis in 1996, it had seen 3, then 5, and then last year, 8 chicks fledge. The park bluebird population was seeing a nice, steady growth in all our nest boxes.

And then one day we got an urgent call from our friend Linda Violett who monitors a bluebird trail in Yorba Linda. She had two runts which werenít going to make it in their current nest box, and no other suitable box to transfer them to on her own trail. Did we have a box of younger chicks which would be the size of her runts? Would we be willing to adopt these scrawny kids to give them their only chance at making it?

A quick review of our logbook revealed that we had only one box which had nestlings of the right size to match the runts. But it already had five chicks! This might prove to be a challenge. Would the adoptive parents be capable of raising such a big brood? Linda and I felt that the runts would never make it unless we tried, so we agreed to meet at the park the next day and introduce the runts to their new family.

Our first step was to remove the nest with its five chicks from its standard-sized Peterson box. We stretched out the nesting material and placed it and the original chicks in a new larger two-hole model that Linda had built. Then we added the two runts and re-hung the box. (All our boxes are the Dick Purvis hanging box style.) We put out some mealworms and moved about 200 feet away to sit and see what would happen.

The challenge was on. First the parents had to accept the new and improved nest box, and then we had to hope they couldnít count.

The process was slow. The parents approached fairly quickly, but with much caution. We watched as they would get close, and then closer. But it seemed like they were never going to go inside. But finally it happened. First one, then the other entered the box. And then they found the mealworms, and began making trips up to the box carrying 3 or 4 worms at a time.

Ah, success! Or so we thought. But it wasnít quite a done deal yet. After all the worms were gone, both parents flew over to where sitting and landed on a branch just over our heads. They had obviously watched all of our efforts with much curiosity and knew we were responsible for all the changes. They then began to read us the riot act for several minutes. And it was very definite that they were talking to us. I interpreted all their chattering as: ĎNice try, but donít you know how hard it is to raise five kids these days, let alone seven? How do you think weíre ever going to get all these guys fledged?"

I looked at Linda, and she looked at me, and the answer became obvious - Mealworms!

So for the next two weeks, I came to box #19 everyday bearing a healthy supply of easy pickings - either medium or large mealworms depending on what I could purchase. The parents became quite used to me and seemed to await my arrival. Several times the male would see me coming and fly from across the baseball field to follow my car as I approached the box location. During the second week I brought along my camera and took over a hundred pictures of the parents as they dropped down from the box and landed within three feet of me to scoop up a mouthful and return to the chicks. I was never able to get any shots of those chicks, but I certainly could hear them.

Iím happy to say that all seven chicks successfully fledged. But I also know that there are those who would say that we never should have interfered by moving the runts or by making food so readily available. But neither Linda nor I could just sit and do nothing. We did what we could to ensure their survival, and I really got to know these great little creatures by spending so much up-close time with them. They really do have a personality all their own, and I know I would recognize Box 19ís dad in a lineup of a hundred bluebirds.

Epilogue: The male and female went on to do a second nesting in their new, bigger box and to lay five more eggs. As we monitored the box, I told them that they would be on their own this time, and I was glad that they hadnít decided to lay seven eggs. (You do know itís OK to talk to birds, donít you?)

We watched as the chicks hatched and we got a good look at them at 10 days. When next we returned, the chicks were 19 days old, and so we only observed the comings and goings of the adults and didnít open the box. As we were leaving to continue monitoring the rest of our trail, the female exited the box and was joined by the male. They both flew after us as we walked, and kept landing close by. It seemed that they wanted to tell us something, but this time we didnít have a clue what they were trying to say. As much as we wanted to go look in the nest box, we didnít want any of the chicks to fledge early, so we reluctantly went on our way.

A week later when we returned and lowered Box 19, we found that four chicks had fledged, but there was also one chick dead in the box. It had probably been dead about five days. We were unable to determine the cause, and who knows if we could have done anything had we investigated on our earlier visit. But maybe, just maybe, next time weíll listen a little harder.

If you would like to experience the thrill of monitoring the progress of bluebirds and their nests, eggs and chicks here in Orange County, please contact Dick Purvis at about setting up your own trail in an area close to your home. Start small if you want, but donít blame me when you find out how addictive it can be.

Dick Purvis says: ďNest boxes for bluebirds need to be checked (monitored) on a regular basis during the nesting season of March through July. Monitoring consists of taking down the nest box, opening it, recording the status, and replacing the box. Monitoring is important because actions must be taken in case of House Sparrow nest attempts (usually by removing the box), and the box must be cleaned after each nest cycle is complete. Monitoring a trail of ten boxes would take about one hour per week. Nearly all parks, golf courses, and cemeteries in Orange County could now be reasonably expected to have nesting bluebirds. Most of them now have nest boxes and monitors are needed. Equipment required is a lifting tool which costs about $30. If additional boxes are needed, they can be obtained for about $10. A training workshop of about two hours will be held for any volunteers. ď

Note: This delightful article by Jane Morf was reprinted, with permission from the author, from the April issue of the Chaparral Naturalist newsletter from the Pomona Valley Audubon.


Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963