Bluebirds’ Best Friend

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People / Jul. 21, 2005 12:00am EDT

Bluebirds’ Best Friend

Without bluebirds and other songbirds, we’d be in insects up to our armpits.

Ralph Hein of Royalton, director of the Bluebird Recovery Program in Vermont, is a big fan of the friendly, useful bluebird.

"Bluebirds are native ground feeders that are pleasant to have around—all they want is a house," said Hein. "They are cavity nesters and want a hole, or cave, to live in, and nesting boxes work perfectly."

The 80-year-old, three-time cancer survivor has been told to stay active but not do any heavy lifting, and he dedicates his time to educating people about meeting the needs of bluebirds.

With a colorful career including 20 years teaching school in New Jersey, Hein moved to Vermont 30 years ago and has been advocating for the bluebird for 10. The Bluebird Recovery Program is a nonprofit corporation so he can apply for grants to continue offering his presentation, a K-8 grade science education program, which includes 44 schools right now. He hopes to provide students with the knowledge needed to establish bluebird trails in rural areas such as school athletic fields, wood lots and other open areas.

"This is a great science project, especially for middle school," said Hein. "I assume kids know nothing about bluebirds, I show them a video, answer their questions and put up six houses on the school grounds, at no cost to the school."

All he asks in return is that the students check the houses and monitor bluebird activity, recording their findings every nine days, to know when fledglings leave the nest. "If we know when they fledge, we can clean out the house as soon as possible and the mother can build a new nest," Hein said. "Bluebirds can have as many as three broods in the same house, one after another."

House Design

The grant money he is able to collect covers fuel to travel to schools as well as materials to build the bluebird houses.

"There’s a specific way to build a bluebird house that benefits the bluebird the most," Hein said. "I like to show students a ‘wrong’ house and then a ‘right’ house so they understand what’s important." Elements of a good bluebird house include an oval entry hole, with room for mother and father to feed the babies from outside without getting them wet. When the babies get wet, often they will freeze to death when night temperatures drop below freezing.

The house does not need extra drain holes in the base, or ventilation holes in the sides, and some bluebird houses have "excessive holes" in them.

"I also like to put on a metal roof to keep the sun and heavy rain from bowing the roof," Hein said. Copper or steel roofs can last 12-15 years. The bottom of the house shouldn’t be too deep, about 3.5 inches is sufficient for a bluebird nest. This design is approved by Audubon, so Hein, a life member of the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minneapolis, mounts a nameplate on each house stating it is Audubon approved.

Locating the nest box is also important. It should not be on a building or fence post or predators like snakes or cats can eat the eggs. They should be about 4.5-5 feet off the ground, out in open areas, about 40-50 feet away from a building, he said.

"I recommend two houses paired 25 feet apart," Hein said. "In the first week of March the bluebirds choose their houses, and the third week in March the tree swallow will move into the other, this reduces competition." Hein mounts his birdhouses on a five-foot pipe, and uses a piece of 30-inch rebar, sunk into the ground, as a support, with the pipe slid onto the rebar. He has even started painting the houses blue, since he’s noticed that bluebirds tend to prefer sitting on blue objects such as a Ford tractor and blue fence post.

Challenges

One of the problems the bluebird faces is that there are a number of programs within Vermont that support predator birds, and raptors like hawks and falcons feed on songbirds.

"By supporting the bluebird, we’re furnishing food for hawks, owls, etc," Hein said. This wouldn’t be a problem except that he feels the bluebirds are getting overlooked. Grants that fund his activities have been increasingly more difficult to obtain.

"I’d like people to be more aware of the little things they can do to support the environment," Hein said. "Everyone wants to be listed as conservation minded, and this is as grassroots as you can get."

Of the 500-550 bluebird houses he’s put up in Vermont recently, he suspects only 17 or so have nests in them right now, due to various disturbances.

"We are losing three million acres each year to logging, houses, school athletic fields, etc.," Hein said. "If people incorporated bluebird houses as they made environmental changes, the bluebirds would still have a home."

His worries include the steadily increasing mercury level in insects, which kills the bluebirds when they eat them, as well as lawn insecticides that last as long as three months. Additional concerns include global warming, which has caused the bluebirds to fly north sooner so they get caught in snow and ice; and the toll from predator programs.

"I’d like to educate people to be more aware of the declining bluebird numbers," Hein said. "Cats, environmental changes, insecticides that kill earthworms, everything has a domino effect."

Public Can Help

Last year Hein built 2,000 bluebird houses, which can be purchased for $25 each including the rebar support post. This is nearly half the price of commercial nest boxes, he said. "Ask your hardware store or supplier to stock some bluebird houses, and if you have an open space, put one up," Hein said. "On a good year three broods of bluebirds, at five eggs each, can account for 15 new bluebirds, and the babies will come back to where they were born, if there’s a house for them.

"Did you know that a baby bluebird will fly 300 feet the first time—it’s the only bird I know that can fly right out of the nest."

Insisting he’s not a professional bird man, Hein just asks people to appreciate the bluebird and look out for them. For additional information regarding grants, school projects, or bluebird houses, contact Ralph Hein at 763-8009.

By Gus Howe Johnson

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