Faribault, Minn. — Carve out a good patch of open space here, and the setting is almost perfect for young families. Tidy fencing. Mowed grass. Majestic oak trees overhead.
“That’s a dandy clutch of eggs,” said Keith Radel. A grin tugged at his tanned cheeks, under the bill of a weathered ball cap labeled with his marching orders: “Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program.” Five perfect, glossy ovals with a hint of blue glowed against a bed of dried field grass inside a nest box made of thin-walled PVC. Radel had a solid but gentle grasp on the box. A bluebird family had taken up residence in the yard of a small bungalow in a quiet neighborhood north of downtown.
Checking bluebird boxes is what the Faribault man has been doing for 34 years — setting up homes for bluebirds looking to start families each spring in Rice County. Homemaker and caretaker, Radel maintains a network of 175 nest box sites (boxes are set up in pairs) each year across 50 miles of this southeastern county, which has become something of a bird magnet. His “bluebird trail” is exceptional, built in part by the work of other benevolent citizen-conservationists who are a part of the state’s Bluebird Recovery Program. The group, which began in 1978, has upward of 400 volunteers like Radel and recently became a nonprofit.
“He’s just a really helpful guy,” said Marlys Shirley of Farmington, the program’s secretary.
But for the commitment and sweat of grass-roots operations like the bluebird program, the small thrush might not be spotted at all. In fact, they were nearly nonexistent in Minnesota in the mid-20th century as their nesting habitat degraded. There were other challenges, too.
Bluebirds are one of the first songbirds to return in April to Minnesota, their arrival seen as a harbinger of spring. But that can spell trouble, putting them in the middle of volatile weather as many migrate north from winter grounds in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. Late-spring snow and ice can often cover valuable food sources from the ground-feeding birds. Bluebirds lay eggs during a three-month window, from April to mid-July, producing two broods to care for.
There remain other threats in the air, too: Non-native house sparrows and house wrens will destroy bluebird eggs and kill or maim chicks and adults in competition for their nests.
The use of pesticides on insects also has been toxic for the birds and young that depend on them for survival.
Radel and hundreds of other nest-watchers have helped reverse the bluebird decline in Minnesota. Radel’s backroads are one of those places. “We see more [birds] in Rice County because there are more [monitors],” he said. “There are a lot of us.”
Last year, at 962 sites in Rice County, the reported data told the story: 4,069 eggs, 3,580 hatchings, and 3,479 bluebirds fledged from their nests. Statewide, nearly 12,000 baby bluebirds took flight. No other county but Rice has fledged 2,000 birds in a year. In fact, Rice County might be the most successful county in the United States, Radel said, a stat that noticeably brings him pride.
“All I know is Keith Radel does really good work,” said Jim Gilbert, who met Radel nearly 30 years ago when Gilbert was the naturalist at Lowry Nature Center in Victoria.
“[The recovery program] has created a lot of interest in bluebirds for people who can’t have a house,” he added. “And it’s all done for education and research — and the research is strong.”
Digging in to help
Positive results didn’t look reachable when Radel joined the recovery program in 1987. In the grass-roots group’s first year it fledged 22 birds in all of Minnesota. But its members were undaunted. One of the pioneers, Dick Peterson of Brooklyn Park, tinkered with bluebird house designs, while others worked on educating the public and monitoring a burgeoning crop of nest boxes strategically placed in suitable open habitat to attract the birds.
Radel, 70, easily rattles off name after name of allies who have bent the bluebird’s arc toward better health. There are the volunteers in Alexandria, Minn., who came up with the idea for two boxes at a site, spaced 10 to 15 feet apart, to reduce pressure and competition on bluebirds. (On a recent visit to one site in an auto dealership’s back field, tree swallows, which like the same cavities, nested next to bluebirds.)
There is the former golfer, Terry Curtis, in Rochester — a friend of Radel’s — who now gets onto golf courses by cart, not to swing a club but to check on the bluebirds that return each year. He fledges more than 200 birds every year. There is also Forrest Strnad, the retired Methodist minister and bird bander who took Radel to a bluebird conference in the fall of 1987 at St. John’s University in Collegeville. Radel said he was “blown away that there were that many people who wanted to help these birds.”
This spring, Radel is out in late afternoon most every day of the week on his trail, his old, red Chevy Silverado pickup announcing his presence. A stained-glass bluebird hangs in the back window and, near it, what looks to be a homemade sticker with his humble creed: “HELPING BLUEBIRDS.”
He attempts to check on 30 nest sites a day over a couple of hours, prepared to redo a soiled nest with dry grass or if needed remove an ornery paper wasp trying to set up shop. His daily routine equates to hundreds of miles driven, hundreds of fields walked and hundreds of boxes checked weekly.
“It doesn’t matter [to the birds] when you go, just so you go,” Radel said.
On a recent day in late May, Radel and some visitors pulled onto a shoulder of County Road 76. The two lanes buzzed with the noise and activity of late-afternoon traffic while Radel and company focused their attention on two boxes affixed atop metal poles which were anchored in a grassy field. It was separated by wire fencing from a cemetery with towering bur and white oaks. The spot was nondescript — but perfect for bluebirds. Radel and his companions spotted a male that stopped near the box, then flew off. Then, mom entered the scene.
“There she is … she’s coming. That’s mom,” Radel said, as the female perched overhead on an electrical wire. Radel gets to know his bluebirds and talks gently to them as he approaches a box. “She’s got an attitude, but that’s OK.”
Four babies, 8 days old, were sacked out at the bottom of the next box, a tangle of featherless skin and vulnerability. Still, if all goes well, they will make their first flight from the nest in about 10 days, he said. The parents will fly with the fledglings to a nearby limb, where they will remain while the male teaches them how to find food. Meanwhile, mom will start over at the nest, laying a second clutch.
Radel’s travels take him clear to Northfield when the last nest box has been checked. Nearly all are on private property, like Craig Hoover’s place just off Hwy. 3 near the Cannon River, prime terrain for the insect-loving bluebirds. Plus, they’ve been good tenants. The boxes have been on his land for the last seven or eight years.
“Bluebirds are something else,” Hoover said. “They’re housekeepers. They ain’t like horses.”
Radel might concur, given he’s provided for and helped launch tens of thousands of the little housekeepers.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, everything is fine. It’s just fun to look, you know?” Radel said. “But when there is one problem that comes along, you can do something about it. They’ll accept the help. That’s pretty special, too.”