Bluebird Monitors Keep Watch Over Feathered Families

bird on boxThe 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.

Pair - Sherry McDonald-edit

Eastern bluebird nesting box in the South Run Stream Valley. Photo credit: Sherry McDonald

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.

logAs 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 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.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

3 thoughts on “Bluebird Monitors Keep Watch Over Feathered Families

  1. msjadeli

    I just happened upon this post. I live in MI and don’t have the problems with bugs but I DO have problems with other species taking over the bluebird boxes. They’ve basically driven them away. What do I do?

    1. Fairfax County Park Authority Post author

      What to do depends on which species is taking over the nest box. In the Fairfax area the three most common species using bluebird boxes are wrens, swallows and tufted titmouse. If wrens or titmice are taking over the nest box, if possible move the box away from forest edges, trees, brush piles, shrubs, etc. Bluebirds prefer nesting in open areas, so keep the boxes as far away from forests, trees, shrubs and brush piles as possible. If swallows are taking over the box, try adding additional boxes. Swallows prefer to feed in open areas and utilize similar habitat to bluebirds and can coexist in the same vicinity because they utilize different habitats for feeding — air for swallows and ground for bluebirds. In many areas it is important to remember nesting cavities are limiting resources for many cavity nesting species. So adding additional nest boxes will often times encourage other pairs or species to use them when placed in appropriate habitat with enough space.

      1. msjadeli

        Thank you so much for the info. I will add more boxes. The ones taking over the boxes are tiny birds I call “trillers” that have a very boisterous song. Not sure what species they are but I think they are a kind of wren.

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