By Sarah Wibell
Spring is coming. The weather will warm, and with that change, bluebirds will return. Because they begin scouting as early as February for locations to build their nests and lay their eggs, bluebird enthusiast Betsy Wagenhauser will hold an informational workshop Saturday, January 26, from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at 962 Dixie Avenue in Madison. The workshop will explain how to attract, monitor, and help fledge bluebirds.
In 2015, the National Audubon Society stated that a declining bluebird population across the United States has slowly begun to recover due to people providing proper housing, and naturalists urge that more people continue those efforts. Wagenhauser created and expanded a bluebird trail that consists of a series of bluebird houses set at appropriate distances from each other along her property and those of consenting neighbors. In 2018, nine nesting bluebird pairs produced 77 eggs resulting in 51 babies. The first egg was laid March 10, hatched March 26, and fledged April 14 while the last egg was laid July 18, hatched July 26, and fledged August 12. It is Wagenhauser’s goal to make Madison the bluebird capitol.
The importance of having properly constructed houses that attract the desired birds cannot be stressed enough by Wagenhauser: “I am somewhat battling the House Wren. I provided a total of 12 nest boxes around my property, but only 9 were used by bluebirds. House Wrens took over some of the boxes which is not conducive to promoting bluebird populations. House Wrens are a native species and therefore protected, but are aggressive and territorial and will destroy bluebird nests and their eggs and often will build a ‘dummy’ nest on top of a bluebird nest.
“Wrens like living close to buildings and shrubs, so bluebird boxes that are well out in the open are safer from wren invasion. It helps to put wren guards on the boxes – little bits of wood [like a sleeve] that extend the entrance hole to make it deeper so the bird has to go through a longer hole to get into the box. Wrens don’t like to do that. Also, bluebird houses should not have a perch on the box. That helps discourage a lot of aggressive birds.”
Additionally, bluebirds prefer unpainted natural wood or light neutral tones like gray, brown, dull green or tan for their houses. Brightly colored boxes will attract other types of birds as well as predators.
Bluebirds tend to build two nests per breeding season, sometimes three, and do not reuse old nests. As a result, the boxes require monitoring to know when the eggs will hatch, how long before babies fledge the nest, and when to clean out the box so a new nest can be built. Wagenhauser noted that a fun way to keep track of the nests is logging the data into Nestwatch.org, a website run by Cornell University, where information on bird populations is shared.
“There’s so many times in the morning when I go outside, and the first thing I hear is a bluebird before any other bird,” Wagenhauser stated. “All of our efforts to bring more bluebirds to town and provide more habitat for them has really increased the population, and everybody around town is seeing more bluebirds.”
Sharing a narrative of her own, Wagenhauser recalled with a laugh, “Bluebirds want cut grass – they like mown grass – because then they can get down to the insects and worms more easily. So, I’m out mowing my grass, and there are two bluebirds sitting in the tree above the area I’m mowing, and they’re tapping their feet, like ‘Could you hurry up? We’re hungry and want to eat.’”
Wherever birdhouses are bought, it is important to know what specifications need to be met for individuals wishing to attract particular types of birds. People who want to buy a ready-made birdhouse can do so in a variety of places, and locals have a chance to do so while contributing to the 2019 build for Habitat for Humanity of Morgan County. Habitat is organizing a fundraising event called Project Bluebird, which is a birdhouse build challenge. Students and members of the community can register to build and donate various types of birdhouses, birdfeeders, or even birdbaths to Habitat.
Those items will be sold and auctioned off at MadisonFest on April 27 with the proceeds helping fund a new house. Some of the birdhouses being made for Project Bluebird are designed for bluebirds while others are not, and all of them are for a good cause.
For interested individuals who are not able to attend the workshop, Wagenhauser recommends looking at either www.sialis.org or reading The Bluebird Monitor’s Guide by Cynthia Berger, Keith Kridler, and Jack Griggs.