MONTICELLO, Minn. – The bluebird pair watched from a high line as Dorene Scriven waded into the tall brome grass, freed PVC nest box No. 14 from its post, reached in and gently extracted one of the days-old nestlings.
Separating one from the mass of five intertwined fuzzy gray bodies and tiny wings was no small task. But Scriven has had a lot of practice.
When it was rare to see bluebirds in Minnesota, Scriven was among a handful of volunteers behind initial efforts to bring them back. Her careful monitoring has helped to bring about 4,000 bluebirds to the fledgling stage in the 40 years since she established this 5-mile, 62-box trail encircling Lake Maria State Park.
While the young appeared healthy on this June check, bluebirds face all manner of perils — from late snows that bury insects they eat to house sparrows that peck females to death and destroy the young to improper nest box positioning that overheats and kills occupants.
That’s why Scriven’s No. 1 piece of advice for those who consider starting a bluebird trail is this: Don’t do it unless you’re going to do it right.
“There are a lot of good-hearted people that put up boxes and don’t ever look in them and take care of them,” Scriven told the St. Cloud Times.
Scriven started her revival efforts in the early 1970s with Dick Peterson, who designed the wooden nest box named for him. When a newspaper story about his efforts prompted more requests than he could handle, he approached the National Audubon Society’s Minneapolis chapter for help. Scriven was on the conservation committee.
She later became chairwoman of the Bluebird Recovery Program, a position she held for 25 years.
“Dorene is one of our conservation pioneers in Minnesota,” said Carrol Henderson, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ nongame wildlife program supervisor who met her when the nongame program was established in the mid-1970s. “Dorene was one of the original spark plugs that made all this happen.”
Program a success
The first year, 11 people reported results to the Bluebird Recovery Program. At the program’s peak, Henderson said, about 15,000 people from Minnesota and surrounding states reported in.
On average, year-to-year Eastern bluebird populations increased 3.2 percent from 1972 to 2012, according to John Sauer of the U.S. Geologic Survey. A research wildlife biologist with Maryland’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, his specialty is estimating bird populations.
“It created one of the most successful bluebird recovery programs in the nation,” Henderson said. He attributed part of that success to Scriven, whose handwritten notes accompanying every annual report made each participant feel as if he or she were an important part of the effort.
Scriven, who wears a straw hat into the field to ward off protective, divebombing male bluebirds, keeps a couple of toolboxes in her truck in case a box requires repairs. In the carpenter’s apron her daughter appliquéd with a vivid bluebird, she tucks away small notebooks for recording the status of each box, an assortment of double-headed nails, two screwdrivers and mosquito repellent. Her arsenal also includes a pair of pliers. Sometimes they’re for fixing, sometimes for dispatching invading house sparrows.
After four decades, bluebirds still hold an allure.
“You can open up the boxes. You can, at some point in the nesting cycle, … take out babies, show them, let little kids hold the babies and show the eggs and the whole process,” Scriven said.
“It’s sort of like Christmas. You go from box to box, and you don’t know what you’re going to find, what the surprise might be. Sometimes it’s not very nice,” she said.
Making the rounds
Once a week, Scriven drives from her Minneapolis home to check the houses. The checks begin before the birds nest — on March 30 this year, with help from her son because deep snow made navigation difficult. Early checks are necessary because wasps or mice may take over a box.
She’ll continue the weekly visits through the nesting season — probably into September this year, as the birds didn’t show signs of nesting until early May.
Last year, for the first time, she got some regular help. Two neighbor boys check 14 of her houses. And this spring, Monticello High School ninth-grader Emily Romine joined Scriven on her Saturday rounds. While she’s hoping to glean knowledge from Scriven and realizes the activity might look good on a college application, Romine seems most motivated by the birds.
“The first time I opened the box, I was using one of those PVC boxes where I had to lift the whole box off,” Romine said. “The bluebird was still in there, so I was technically holding the bluebird.”