May the Bluebirds of Happiness Nest in Your Yard

By Andrea L.T. Peterson

It’s been about five years that the Audubon Club of Sun City Center has been aggressively monitoring the area’s bluebird population, which had been steadily declining. Master Naturalist and 12-year Sun City Center resident, Melanie Higgins, explained to me how and why the bluebird population matters and how and why the local Audubon club became involved. Bluebirds, she explained, “are secondary cavity nesters—unlike woodpeckers, for example, they don’t make or find holes in which to build their nests. Over the years, the National Audubon Society approved the design and recommended they be placed at least 300 feet apart with a view to an open field with some trees for cover when the babies fledged. Bluebirds,” she added, “have adapted to using boxes.”

“The club,” she explained, was looking for a way to become more involved in the local community, so they scouted around (pardon the pun) and found a local Eagle Scout group willing to take on the project. The scouts, she told me, “built the boxes. Then the Audubon club put out a call for 20 people who wanted the boxes in their yards. There was a small fee for the boxes (considered a donation to the club).” The hope was that people who spent money on the boxes would be invested in them, that they would help monitor the activity in the boxes, and help the club keep track of the population. It didn’t work out that way.

“While the people were enjoying the birds in their yards, they weren’t monitoring the boxes,” Higgins explained, “so for the first year there was no good data.” The second year, Higgins decided she would monitor the boxes every week herself, tracking nesting, hatching, and fledging numbers. That year, she said, “70 babies fledged.” It seems the primary goals of the Bluebird Box Project to increase awareness of the birds, garner interest in birding, and help increase the bluebird population were being achieved.

My own yard, not an approved space, according to the recommendations, has had success two seasons with bluebirds nesting and sending little ones out into the world! More and more people are seeing bluebirds in their yards or around town for the first time EVER!! It’s pretty exciting to see the spectacular males with their vibrant colors and the no nonsense females protecting and feeding their young.

There are 25 boxes in town now, producing, quite literally, 100-110 fledglings a year. A team of ten monitors the boxes through the summer, keeping track of and recording the numbers of nests, eggs, hatchlings, and presumed fledglings.

According to Higgins, about 30% of the fledglings will survive their first year. One of the greatest hazards, aside from hatchlings too young to fledge, falling out of the nest and becoming “fox food,” Higgins says, is sparrows. An invasive species, not native to the United States, “sparrows literally murder the bluebirds by pecking holes in their heads.”

 “‘The great thing about birding,’” says Higgins, quoting longtime friend and retired National Audubon Ornithologist, Ann Paul, “‘is you can do it any time, any place.’” Our Sun City lakes and ponds and the small islands within some of them provide hours of entertainment and an incredible number of species (ducks and birds) for our viewing pleasure. If you’re housebound you can watch the activity out your windows and enjoy the “sport” without even leaving your bed or your chair!

Take a lesson from the bluebird, whose lifespan is somewhere between six to 10 years: fly when you can, be free, and, says Higgins, “live in the moment!”

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