Twin Cities volunteers nurture bluebirds

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2014 - 3:42 PM

Minnesota’s bluebird population was in decline before volunteers helped it rebound.

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A bluebird sighting was becoming a rarity 35 years ago when a small group of bird lovers created the Bluebird Recovery Program of Minnesota.

Threatened by competition from other tree cavity-dwelling birds and a loss of habitat, the songbird known as the harbinger of happiness was going through a decidedly somber period.

The Bluebird Recovery group, a committee of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, built and hung birdhouses and in its first year reported 22 fledglings that flew the nest.

Thirty-three years later, in 2012, the group of volunteers set a record with more than 23,000 fledglings sighted across the state.

Today, eastern bluebirds can be seen along trails, in parks, on golf courses, on school and corporate campuses and even in cemeteries, thanks to the group’s efforts.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources credits the recovery program and the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program with fostering one of the most successful bluebird recovery projects in the nation.

For the most part, program participants aren’t scientists, just grass-roots volunteers smitten with the plump birds with blue backs and rust-colored bellies, said Carrol Johnson, the statewide coordinator for the recovery program.

Johnson, a retired 3M maintenance supervisor living in Northfield, started fawning over the bluebird about a dozen years ago after reading a newspaper article and attending a lecture.

“I never even knew there was a need,” said Johnson, who now maintains and monitors about 60 bluebird houses in Northfield and on his farm in Fillmore County. He also fields dozens of calls a week from bluebird volunteers across the nation.

People fall hard for the little songbird, he said.

“It happens to a lot of our people. People come to our presentation inquisitive. Some people get really hooked,” Johnson said. “They really enjoy the process of seeing the birds building the nest, laying the eggs and hatching.”

Monitoring houses is critical. Unmonitored houses can actually hurt bluebirds by attracting nonnative sparrows and increasing their population, Johnson said.

On the watch in Anoka

Volunteers mount, monitor and maintain thousands of bluebird houses.

Retired school principal Jeanne Wilkinson is one of them. At sunrise every Wednesday, she and retired schoolteacher Dick Sherva check on 39 strategically placed bluebird houses in the city of Anoka. Wilkinson and Sherva are both active in the Friends of the Anoka Nature Preserve.

Six years ago, Wilkinson took over the bluebird “trail” first established by another bird lover who had died; she assumed the duties at the request of his widow.

Wilkinson is known by her two grandchildren, ages 2 and 5, as “Nana Bluebird.” So far this year, they’ve counted 55 fledglings, with more on the way.

Wilkinson wears an apron to carry odd items and tools she may need — a stick to dig out an old nest, a plastic sack to bag it.

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  • Anoka County bluebird coordinator Jeanne Wilkinson, maintains 39 bluebird houses in Anoka parks, golf courses and cemeteries.

  • Bluebirds often won’t use a box if it’s already stuffed with an old, trash-laced nest from another songbird, so maintenance is critical.

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