HARRISBURG – Despite winter’s cold grip on the weather, Pennsylvania Game Commission officials note that nesting activities begin early for the eastern bluebird, a member of the thrush family and a voracious insect eater that can bring a splash of color and a lyrical song to many homesteads.
“Now is the time to clean, repair or put up new homes for eastern bluebirds, which have long been the displaced darlings of Pennsylvania’s spring, as well as the poster bird for what can go wrong when people introduce non-native species to a new area,” said Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section supervisor. “Bluebirds suffered considerable losses in the twentieth century due to introductions of house sparrows and European starlings to America in the 1800s. Further complicating the bluebird’s plight, particularly in Pennsylvania, has been the loss of open spaces to development or reforestation.”
Pennsylvania’s bluebird population was probably its strongest ever in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before starlings and house sparrows became too plentiful. It was the period just after large sections of the Commonwealth’s forests had been logged off and a time when farms covered about two-thirds of the state. Pennsylvania’s human population was half what it is today. Combined, that translated into lots of open space – preferred habitat and limited competition with other cavity nesters. Bluebird paradise.
The Game Commission regularly campaigned for bluebirds by encouraging Pennsylvanians to consider getting involved in conservation projects to make the state a friendlier place for them. The agency’s Howard Nursery, near Milesburg, has been manufacturing bluebird nest boxes and box kits for more than a quarter century. Each year, about 9,000 boxes are manufactured there and sold or provided to Pennsylvanians to help bluebirds. That annual influx of new nest boxes helps to ensure Pennsylvania remains a “keystone state” in bluebird conservation.
“That bluebirds currently nest in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties is directly related to the tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who showed interest in bluebird conservation and doing something more for wildlife in their yards and fields over the past 50 years,” explained Brauning. “But we should not consider the bluebird’s comeback a done deal, because their existence seems destined to hinge on the continued involvement of people who care about the species. If people stop putting out nest boxes for bluebirds, there undoubtedly will be serious repercussions.”
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a limited supply of bluebird nesting boxes and kits for sale at its Harrisburg headquarters and Howard Nursery.
“These bluebird boxes enable Pennsylvanians to fulfill their desire to help wildlife in a natural way,” said J. Carl Graybill Jr., agency Bureau of Information and Education director. “We will have the boxes and kits on sale in the lobby of the Commission’s Harrisburg headquarters for the next two weeks, or until supplies are sold out.
“Building nesting boxes is a great project for individuals, families or civic organizations interested in wildlife. These box designs are proven to attract bluebirds and other species, including tree swallows and house wrens.”
Bluebird boxes and kits sell for $7. Boxes have already been constructed and are ready for placement. Kits include pre-cut wood, nails, screws and directions on how to assembl and where to place nesting boxes. Shipping costs for nesting boxes, either completed or in kits ready to build, are $5 for one and $6 for two.
“The bluebird boxes offered by the Game Commission include an opening that is the prescribed one-and-one-half inches in diameter,” Graybill said. “This precludes most starlings from being able to enter. However, house sparrows still may be able to enter the boxes. If you can confirm that house sparrows are using the box, the nest should be removed immediately.”
Boxes should be erected three to five feet above the ground and facing a nearby tree or fence where young birds can safely land on their initial flights from the box. To reduce predation and competition from other species, no perch should be placed on the box; bluebirds do not need one.
The Game Commission’s headquarters is at 2001 Elmerton Ave., just off the Progress Avenue exit of Interstate 81 in Harrisburg. To check on availability, please call the Game Commission’s Harrisburg office at 1-888-888-3459.
For more information on purchasing boxes or kits at the Howard Nursery, contact Cliff Guindon at the Howard Nursery, 197 Nursery Road, Howard, PA 16841, telephone 814-355-4434. Hours of operation are Monday thru Friday 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Countless Pennsylvanians already are involved in bluebird conservation, because they enjoy seeing bluebirds, or simply would like to lend a helping hand to a songbird that could use all the help it can get. Most have bluebird nest boxes in their yard; others maintain bluebird nest box trails. Casual conservationists probably account for the biggest share of this ongoing outreach effort. They also sometimes put nest boxes in locations that simply won’t do much for bluebirds.
“People frequently ask the Game Commission why bluebirds won’t use a nest box they’ve placed in their yard,” said Doug Gross, Game Commission ornithologist. “More often than not the reason is the box was placed in an undesirable location. People often mistakenly place nest boxes in places where they’d like to see them, rather than locations that satisfy bluebirds. Most bluebirds spend the winter near their nest box and forage on wild fruits and berries. Competition for next boxes begins in winter and can feature male bluebirds rolling around in the snow, fighting over a territory.
“A box is best placed on a post – not a tree trunk – four to six feet off the ground in direct sunlight. Preferred locations are open backyards, meadows, pastures, near fencerows or agricultural fields, and around cemeteries or athletic fields. Boxes placed too close to houses and other buildings, waterways and wetlands, or forested and brushy areas will attract nesting competitors and predators, especially house wrens.”
Of course, it should be pointed out that a bluebird nest box used by any species other than a house sparrow – starlings can’t access the entrance of a properly-constructed bluebird nest box – is still a box that’s serving wildlife and helping to fill a habitat deficiency. If helping bluebirds is your objective, then place or relocate your nest box in an area where there will be limited nesting competition and predator problems, and where bluebirds are more apt to find it. If you’re reusing a box, remove old nesting materials from inside before hanging it. Otherwise, recognize its worth to other wildlife and place it where it’ll do some good.
The best time to erect a bluebird box is right now. The earlier a nest box is placed afield or in a yard, the better its chances are of attracting bluebirds. Males – the more vibrantly-colored ones – start shopping for nest boxes in early to mid March. After attracting a female, they build a nest in the box. In late April – and often again in mid June – the female lays eggs. Some pairs nest three times a year.
“Although Pennsylvania’s bluebird population appears to be stronger today than any time over the past 50 years, the species surely needs to remain in the public’s eye to ensure its well-being and that it continues to prosper,” emphasized Gross. “Probably nothing reinforces the need for bluebird nest boxes more than seeing bluebirds scrapping with house sparrows over a box. It’s a sight that inspires people to get a nest box and help make a difference locally. So please do put out nest boxes, and put them where they can help. Please encourage your neighbors to do the same. It can be a neighborhood project that leads to conservation of other species, including those that are more rare than the bluebird.”
Game Commission Wildlife Conservation Officers also use the bluebird box program as a way to help younger Pennsylvanians connect with wildlife. In Jefferson County, WCO Michael Girosky launched a bluebird box program with schools in his district in 1995, and has seen the program grow every year.
“Currently, I use more than 300 bluebird box kits each year and the demand is growing,” WCO Girosky said. “In 2005, every fifth grader in the Punxsutawney area was provided this program, including those in the Punxsutawney School District, the parochial schools and the Punxsutawney Christian School, as well as those being home-schooled.
“I have also received requests from the remaining two elementary schools in my district, C.G. Johnson and Sykesville, which are part of the DuBois School District. I have conducted programs for cub scouts/boy scouts, girl scouts and even an adult group and have more requests for next year.”
WCO Girosky noted that this program has been the most successful educational program in this district.
“Teachers and PTAs call to request it, and I hear more positive feedback about this program than any other activity I am involved in,” Girosky said. “I have high school students telling me how they have continued to maintain and build more boxes on their own just because they were introduced to the bluebirds way back in the fifth grade.
“I will attempt to continue this program as long as possible because it not only gives the children a outstanding and unique opportunity to learn about and help the bluebirds; it is the best program that I have found to bring the Game Commission into the classroom on a neutral subject that all can agree on and shows us in the best light to the kids, parents, teachers and administration of the schools in the community.”
The availability of bluebird box kits, and instruction on their construction and placement to school districts is extremely limited given the agency’s current financial situation. All requests will receive consideration. However, the agency’s website – www.pgc.state.pa.us – offers additional information on bluebirds, as well as nest box plans. The Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania www.thebsp.org, as well as the North American Bluebird Society www.nabluebirdsociety.org, have done much to promote bluebirds and the species’ never-ending need for nest boxes. Their websites offer a variety of features that will familiarize interested landowners with ways to make their properties more attractive to bluebirds.