See that flash of blue go by? Hear that raspy purring call? Bluebirds around Madison are multiplying and that’s not just because of those birds and the bees in the springtime trees. Betsy Wagenhauser has been sharing her love of bluebirds around town, and that has led to the creation of her very own bluebird trail – an endeavor she hopes others will duplicate.
“A couple of years ago, I started thinking a lot about bluebirds,” stated Wagenhauser, resident of Bonar Hall, that beautiful historic home with the city sign along the sidewalk alerting passers-by that Madison is a bird sanctuary. “I saw one sitting on top of a fence and fell in love with them.”
Researching them online, Wagenhauser came across information about “bluebird trails”. The trails consist of a series of bluebird houses set 100 yards apart from each other to give each pair of bluebirds the space and setting they need to build nests and lay eggs and see the babies fledge. With suitable habitat diminishing, partly from human construction and partly from invasive species of birds that steal bluebird nests and push out bluebird eggs or young babies, Wagenhauser decided to create a trail of her own.
“Madison is perfect for bluebirds with the yards around here; we’ve got the best habitat for it. The birds just need a little help sometimes,” she said.
Riding her John Deere Gator around a trail that has expanded to some of the neighbors’ yards and fields, she checks the 12 bluebird houses. Although easy to maintain, they require a few specific details to be successful. The deep-nesting box is built without a perch on the front as that would attract the wrong kind of birds and should be located in a clear space like a meadow or a mowed lawn. Brush and perches draw house sparrows that, though native, take over bluebird nests.
“I buy my bluebird houses on Ebay from a father and son who build them together and sell them under the name ‘Rando101’,” Wagenhauser explained. “Then I take a seven-foot tall, three-quarter inch metal pole and drive it two feet into the ground. The boxes are easy to mount on that. It is so easy!
“I monitor the boxes every three to four days. The bluebirds tolerate humans – that’s why you can manage the boxes to help increase the survival rates. You have to check for insects or other types of bird nests being built inside the box. Bluebirds nest twice a season, so you need to clean out the boxes after the babies fledge so more eggs can be laid.”
Wagenhauser has fledged 13 birds so far this year and has seven nestlings and nine more eggs preparing to hatch. She recalled that one of the best mornings she’s had was watching the last couple of fledglings in one of the nests fly away: “I could see parents flying around the box, but one guy was so not wanting to fledge. He kept going half in and half out of the opening. The dad would fly up and give him a worm and talk to him. Then the mom flew up to the opening and talked to him. It took one and a half hours for him to fly out to his brothers and sisters up in the trees, but it was one of the best mornings I’ve spent.”
“Almost anybody in Madison can put at least one box up. If we could talk 20 people into doing this, that’s 400 bluebirds! Or 40 people to put one box up – imagine!” Wagenhauser noted, “The sad statistic is that only half of all bluebird fledglings survive the first year; but think of how many more there could be with more boxes.”
Bluebirds pick a mate each season and stay in that pairing for the year. The males are as involved as the females and have a brighter blue color. They scout for nesting locations in January and February before actually building in the spring. If you want bluebirds to build a nest in your yard, make sure the houses are ready prior to that time of year. It is also beneficial to face the opening to the South or Southeast to prevent Northern wind chill damaging the eggs and to locate the box within 50 feet of a tree so fledglings have something to fly to.
These birds will not sit on their powder blue eggs until all of the three to five have been laid. Once the incubation process begins, it only takes two weeks for them to hatch. The babies usually fledge after 17 days. Wagenhauser charts the schedule to better manage the bluebird houses. Keeping records allows her to know if eggs have not hatched in the appropriate time frame, which may indicate unfertilized eggs or perhaps be the result of a cold snap. When this occurs, she can clean out the nest to allow the birds to try again.
Another reason for documenting her nests is to send the information to NestWatch, a national database that asks people to keep track of nests of all native species in their area. Photos are uploaded in addition to general details.
“I see more bluebirds and hear them all the time now – they have a very distinctive call,” Wagenhauser shared. “They’re beautiful and sweet. There’s something about them: when you see them, they make you happy.
“My dream would be to have Madison become the bluebird capitol.”