The colorful Eastern bluebird can now be found throughout Fairfax County, but it wasn’t too long ago that this bird we often associate with happiness was facing a sad and uncertain future.
Bluebird populations went on the decline in the last century due to loss of habitat and nesting sites, as well as use of the insecticide DDT in the 1960s and 1970s. Their numbers have bounced back in recent years with the help of national, state and local bluebird societies that encourage the building and monitoring of birdhouses for these cavity-nesters. The Virginia Bluebird Society was founded in 1978, and Fairfax County has an active network of bluebird monitors who keep close tabs on an array of bluebird houses that occupy local parks and neighborhoods.
With their flashy blue color, the Eastern bluebird is one of the easier birds for amateur bird watchers to identify. Males boast a brilliant royal blue on the back and head. The grayer females have a blue tinge on the wings and tail. Volunteer bluebird monitors work from late March through August to protect the species.
These volunteers build and install special nesting boxes that have both snake and raccoon guards to protect the nests. During the nesting season, monitors check the boxes on a weekly basis for hazards such as ant and wasp infestations. They also do repairs when necessary. Once the baby birds have all fledged, the monitors clean the boxes so they can be used again. Some boxes get as many as five broods in a year.
It doesn’t take long for problems to develop in the boxes. Local volunteers recently reported that a birdhouse that was in great shape one week was overrun with ants when it was checked a week later. The ants had moved their colony into the nest to escape from a bout of rainy weather. When the monitors opened the box for their weekly check, they found ants swarming over the bluebird chicks.
Sherry McDonald, a Fairfax Master Naturalist and Bluebird Trail monitor, temporarily moved the nest and babies to a bucket. She helped clean the box and sprayed it with diatomaceous earth, which is a desiccant that quickly dries out the ants. Vaseline was rubbed on the supporting pole to stop further ant incursions. Volunteer Betsy Lauer placed an abandoned robin’s nest in the box, and the young bluebirds were returned to their birdhouse. As soon as the volunteers stepped away, the parents quickly returned to feed their babies. The monitors checked back about four hours later to see how things were progressing. They found no ants and two very attentive parents.
As the monitors make their rounds, they keep logs of what they find. They record the numbers of eggs in the bird boxes and chart the babies’ progress after they hatch. This data is collected by the Virginia Bluebird Society. It is studied at the local, state and national levels to learn more about the threats to bluebirds, and how the bird can succeed and thrive. The bluebirds grow quickly. In just over two weeks, they mature from helpless hatchlings into their recognizable blue-feathered appearance.
The bluebird monitors have been able to continue their activities during the COVID-19 pandemic since they work outdoors and usually work alone or with family members. Social-distancing on the bluebird trails has not been a problem.
Remember that the folks working with the bluebird boxes are trained volunteers. If you should happen to spot a bluebird box while on a walk, please don’t touch it or even try to look inside. The wrong action may cause bluebirds to abandon the nest. Enjoy the activity around the birdhouse from a responsible distance, and do your part to help this species thrive.
If you are interested in becoming a bluebird monitor, contact the Virginia Bluebird Society through their website at www.virginiabluebirds.org. Training sessions are typically held in February and March and monitoring the boxes can be a great family activity.
Author Carol Ochs works in the Park Authority’s Public Information Office and wrote this article with the help of Kurt Lauer, a Park Authority volunteer services coordinator, and Steve Johnson, Fairfax County coordinator for the Virginia Bluebird Society. Kurt and Betsy Lauer also provided photos.