There are few birds that capture the imagination and hearts like the bluebird, and this is the time of year to spot them. But it wasn’t so long ago that these little colorful birds, native only to North America, were endangered.
Thanks to the introduction of two non-native bird species in the late 1800s, along with increased use of pesticides and destruction of natural habitat, the bluebird population had declined nearly 90 percent in the 1960s, according to Ken Knapp, Pennsylvania master naturalist, master birder, and assistant naturalist at North Park Latodami Nature Center.
“It has been through the efforts of people making bluebird boxes, creating bluebird trails and monitoring the boxes, that this decline has been reversed. It is considered one of the most successful human-led conservation efforts to occur here,” Knapp explained.
One of these successful efforts is the bluebird box program at North Park, which is led by Knapp.
“Bluebird boxes have been a fixture in North Park and Latodami for years. When I came on board in late 2018, I was looking for a project to take on,” he explained.
To revitalize the program, Knapp started by recruiting volunteers to scout certain areas in North Park to find out what boxes existed. The volunteers mapped the locations and cleaned the boxes to ready them for the breeding season.
“The following year, we recruited more folks that actually adopted a bluebird trail—a group of boxes in a specific area—and monitored them. We visited them weekly to see what was taking place and recorded all bird activity,” Knapp said.
Some of the bluebird boxes that Knapp and the volunteers discovered were no longer useable or were in need of great repair.
“Many of the boxes had been from Scouting and church projects, but once they were built, they were basically left alone,” Knapp said.
A major component of the project became building new houses or repairing those still viable. This year, the team had a goal of 100 new boxes, which were installed in late winter to welcome new nesting birds.
Al DeLuca of McCandless Township is one of the program’s key volunteers.
“I have always had an interest in conservation, and this opportunity has given me a way to channel my energy into something tangible. It’s has also been a great way to build new friendships with other like-minded people,” DeLuca said.
Knapp, DeLuca and additional volunteers Ray Morris, Dick Eiseman and Keven Pilgrim constructed the boxes from wood planks. Many also have roofs made from donated election signs.
“We found the material in the signs to be the perfect material and a way to rescue them instead of them going into a landfill,” Knapp said.
North Allegheny student Nithin Bhandiri, 15, undertook the job of creating a database and placing waterproof QR codes on each box. Monitors can now scan these codes on their smart phones to document the bird activity they observe.
“I wanted to volunteer and use technology. This was a good way to do that,” he said.
“We now have one of the most sophisticated bluebird box tracking systems in the region,” said Knapp, adding that Nithin logged well over 100 volunteer hours and was awarded the Presidential Gold Volunteer Award for his efforts.
Thirty-seven volunteers are monitoring 354 boxes through the park this season. Knapp said that those wanting to get involved can contact him to be put on the waiting list as they open up new areas next season. A major focus of the bluebird project right now, however, is outreach.
“We would love to work with groups to establish bluebird trails in other areas. Any groups that are interested can reach out to me,” Knapp said. A trail of 10 bluebird houses was recently established in a nearby neighborhood.
Those interested in the bluebird monitoring project, including establishing an outreach trail, can contact Knapp at Kenneth.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for Attracting Bluebirds to Your Own Yard
According to Knapp, local bluebird lovers can find an infinite number of resources through the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania (www.thebsp.org).
There is also still time to install a bluebird box for later broods. It is also important to provide feed throughout the year.
“People can attract bluebirds to their backyards by feeding them in the winter season—they like mealworms,” said Knapp. “They can also put up a bluebird box there if they have sufficient open space.”
Bluebirds overwinter in western Pennsylvania, so in addition to serving up mealworms, keep bird feeders stocked, put in a birdbath, and plant native berry trees and shrubs. As far as housing, make sure to have a nesting box appropriate for bluebirds. The house should then be installed on a pole in an open area—ideally, a field away from woods.
Bluebirds can have up to three broods per season. The female birds usually lay between two and seven eggs which will be pale blue. The eggs hatch in approximately 30-21 days with young fledglings in about three weeks.