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
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
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
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