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Bluebird Recovery Project counts success one egg, hatch at a time

A bluebird poses outside her house near Century School in Park Rapids. Although they are generally timid, the noisy playground nearby doesn't seem to bother them. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The Bluebird Recovery Project depends on the kindness of strangers.

Neglect, ignorance and complacence have resulted in bluebird houses throughout the county being left unattended, and hence, vacant.

They're clogged with old nesting materials, have rotting, moldy interior walls and leaky roofs. What self-respecting bluebird would want to live in a dump like this?

Other houses were built too low to the ground.

"Right now more bluebirds are being eaten in houses than are being raised," said Keith Radel, state coordinator of the Recovery Project. "They used to outnumber robins years ago."

And that's one of the main tenets the Bluebird Recovery project hopes to address through community education. Bluebirds depend on wildlife enthusiasts to embark on urban and rural revitalization projects, bringing bluebirds home to well-kept domiciles.

Houses on wooden poles attract predators, so they're outmoded.

"These are just raccoon feeding stations," Radel said, posing by a display of "worst practices" homes well-meaning bird enthusiasts erect in the vain hopes of attracting the brightly colored birds.

Last year the Recovery Project launched a new initiative, a "safe house" project, if you will. Volunteers are trying to get to unmonitored houses and trails, clean them up and make them habitable once more.

One such trail is the Margit Fischer Memorial Trail on Hunter Road, east of Lake Emma in Hubbard County. Residents say there have been no bluebirds living there for years

Ron Jensen, Hubbard County coordinator of the Bluebird Recovery Project, has that on his list to check. He theorizes that the houses along the trail, some 40 to 50 feet apart, are simply a denser living accommodation than bluebirds would like. Unlike purple martins, bluebirds aren't into PUD-style living.

'They're very territorial," Jensen said. "If they can even see another house, they won't move in."

He thinks moving some of the houses along the Fischer trail and cleaning them up may attract birds in the future.

He should know. He's successfully located houses in the fields surrounding Century School in Park Rapids, part science project, part nature preservation. All have bluebirds nesting, some even awaiting a vacancy. He no sooner set them up this spring than they were occupied.

A thriving population of bluebirds swoops in and around the basketball courts, keeping a watchful eye on the rambunctious students during recess.

Golf courses have been another hub of bluebird activity, Jensen said. At Eagle View Golf Course, bluebirds don't seem to mind errant balls whizzing over their homes - there's no picture windows to shatter.

Jensen has placed bluebird houses at Headwaters Country Club, Blueberry Pines Golf Course and Fairhaven Golf Course. At each course, he's enlisted golfers to periodically check the houses, monitor them for eggs, and clean them out when the chicks have flown the coop.

Besides raccoons and house cats, most predators include the avian variety.

Wrens are especially deadly. They don't tolerate interlopers like bluebirds, and will often raid bluebird nests. Recovery volunteers suggest moving bluebird houses out of harm's way. If wrens are already present, bluebirds shouldn't be, they suggest.

Tree swallows can pose a threat to bluebirds, too. Setting up houses 10 to 15 feet apart will usually lure the swallows to the more concentrated housing and the bluebirds will move on to a more friendly environment.

And sparrows, because they're not a protected species, can simply be evicted, if they haven't bunked alongside a bluebird nest. Avoid feeding birds cracked corn and millet - that just attracts sparrows.

Technological developments have addressed the problems of mold and wood rot. A new PVC design houses bluebirds within a 4-inch plastic pipe that screws onto a predator-proof pole.

Car wax can also keep climbing predators off a pole.

But it's the human attention that's the most efficient weapon to ensure survival of the species.

"We're just interested in making sure some birds are here in 50 years," Radel said.