Have you ever seen a bluebird? My friends call it a "Wow!" bird, one that makes you turn your head when you first spot it. Its rich blue color looks like a dazzling jewel in the sunlight.
Bluebirds can be found all over North America. There are three different kinds: The Eastern bluebird, with a blue back and brick-red chest, is found east of the Rocky Mountains. The Western bluebird, which is very similar, lives west of the Rockies. And the all-blue Mountain bluebird is found in higher elevations from the Rockies to the West Coast. These beautiful birds have inspired songs and poetry and, in at least one case, a career.
Harry Power first saw a flock of Mountain bluebirds on a snowy field in Montana when he was a teenager. Their brilliant blue feathers shimmered in the cold sunlight against the bright white snow. He was so interested that he did a science-fair project on these birds at school. And he won a national award. Today, Harry Power still studies Mountain bluebirds as a sociobiology professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"I ask the 'why?' questions about how birds behave," Professor Power explains. And one of the ways he answers those questions is by watching bluebirds at their homes. If you live near the right habitat - the kind of landscape that bluebirds like to call home - you can watch bluebirds, too.
Bluebirds nest in holes near open spaces like pastures. Many years ago they nested mostly in old trees in holes built by woodpeckers or created by decay. But many of those trees have been cut down. And two bird species that came across the Atlantic Ocean with European settlers - the European starling and the house sparrow - often take over the holes that are left. Bluebird numbers began to decline during this century.
So bluebird lovers began to design special nest boxes. They put them up near the places bluebirds like to raise families and find food. They called them "bluebird trails," since they would place many boxes every 300 feet or so in the right area. And it was a success!
"If you build it, they will come," says Pixie Senesac, a research biologist at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.
The most important thing is to put the boxes in the right place. Bluebirds like large, open spaces with low vegetation: lawns, meadows, cow pastures, golf courses, parks. They need good perches to sit on, such as a tree limb, fence post, or utility wire. The shape and size of the nest-box opening is also key.
The boxes would be placed four to five feet off the ground, on a post or even a tree. If the boxes are near a road, the box should face away from it; otherwise, the mother bird will be distracted by passing cars. Don't put the houses near buildings, since house sparrows may try to take over the boxes.
For Eastern bluebirds, the bluebird trails appear to have made a difference. Their population has steadily increased since the 1950s, when more and more boxes were put up.
Many Scout troops and 4-H clubs have joined in putting up bluebird trails. Families can do it, too. If you decide to put up boxes in your area, talk to your local parks department. If you live in the country, talk to other property owners. Most people love bluebirds and will be happy to share their land.
Once you have your boxes up, you should look in on them once a week with a grownup. Make sure intruders have not taken over. This should be done quickly, to avoid bothering the birds. Tap lightly on the box first to let the mother know you have arrived. Often, she will leave. Never open the box on a cold, wet, windy day. That could endanger the chicks.
You can learn lots of things by observing the bluebirds. Watch to see when the birds arrive. Many male bluebirds are already trying to claim their home territory this time of year. The male bluebird, which is brightly colored compared with the more drab brownish female, will court the female by puffing up his feathers and bringing food to her. See what the birds bring into the box as they build a nest.
WHEN the female begins to lay eggs, you can note when they were laid and how many. It takes about 13 days for the eggs to hatch. And the chicks will come out of the nest in about 18 to 21 days. If you keep good notes, you will be able to watch on the day the birds come out! Bluebirds sometimes raise as many as three broods each spring and summer.
If you are really interested in watching your boxes as a project, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is doing a survey of nest boxes. They want to know if bluebirds prefer clean nest boxes or boxes with old nests already in them. They will send participants a list of questions to answer about their bird boxes. You can help scientists make discoveries about bluebirds.
For more information, call (607) 254-2440, or send an e-mail message to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Make a One-Board Bluebird Nesting Box
Ask a grown-up to help you with this. You'll need: a 1x6 pine board five feet long; galvanized nails or screws; a hinge; and a screw with a washer to hold the top on securely. You also need a saw that can cut the angle between the top and front pieces, and a drill. The easiest way to make the oval opening that bluebirds prefer is with a drill press, but you can use a coping saw instead, and the birds won't mind.
Drill holes in the bottom for drainage, and in the sides for ventilation. See story above for instructions on where to put your nest box. Pick a safe spot: Fledglings live on the ground for a few days and are easy prey for cats and other predators. Clean out the box in the fall, and take it down so mice won't winter in it. Put it up again in early March.
Other resources: Ask a librarian to help you find books about birds and their nests. For more nest-box plans (including predator guards), see "Woodworking for Wildlife," by Carol Henderson, 112 pp., $9.95 (call Minnesota's Bookstore,  297-3000). The North American Bluebird Society (Box 6295, Silver Spring, MD 20906-0295) maintains a home page with extensive links: http://look.net/nabluebird