Our gift to the birds, and theirs to us

I asked my daughter Amanda and our friend Leiza, "Will you walk up the edge of the meadow and see how many bluebird houses you can clean out while I get what we need to put up the owl houses?"

They both said, "Sure."

Amanda asked, "What do bluebirds do in the wild? Who cleans out their natural nests for them?"

I said, "Nobody. Woodpeckers hollow out cavities in dead trees. When the woodpeckers finish with a cavity, bluebirds or other cavity-dwellers move into the empty apartment. There used to be plenty of dead trees and abandoned cavities. So when bluebirds filled one place too full of nesting materials, they found another.

"Humans cut down most of the dead trees," I continued. "Bluebirds had to really look to find housing. People figured out what the birds needed and started putting up houses. Now we have to manage the dwellings so bluebirds can keep using them. People understand wildlife needs better now, and they allow more dead trees to stand. Eventually, the birds won't need as much human help."

The year before, a Girl Scout troop built 30 bluebird houses of smooth, milled wood. Boy Scouts built more of them, and two screech-owl houses. They were donated to a Girl Scout ranch - 750 acres of forest, meadows, and dramatic granite formations in northern Colorado's Rocky Mountains. My family and I lived on the ranch and took care of it.

Girl Scouts, their leaders, and two volunteers from the Boy Scouts hiked around the ranch. We found appropriate trees, posts, and poles, and fastened on bluebird houses four to five feet up. Mountain bluebirds like them facing into meadows scattered through forest and rock formations.

Pastel-blue bluebirds fill the houses partway with sticks and grass and lay and hatch their eggs. They bring insects to feed their broods. The front panels of the houses are held on with one or two screws, so they are easy to remove and replace.

When the young bluebirds leave home, we remove the front panels and clean out the houses. We carry the material from inside the houses away and scatter it on the meadow so predators don't locate the bluebird nesting sites through refuse left below them. When we keep the houses ready, the birds raise two or three broods through the summer and return the next year to raise more.

Bluebird houses are easy to put up. The owl houses Amanda and Leiza and I fastened into trees are a bird of a different feather. Screech owls like their houses about 13 feet up. We ran out of time the weekend the Scouts came to the ranch to put houses up, but eventually, Amanda and Leiza helped me finish putting them up.

I got what we needed from the shop and trucked it to the meadow. I placed the ladder in the old ponderosa pine close to Lone Pine Creek just as Leiza and Amanda returned from cleaning out 21 bluebird houses. I climbed the ladder, and they encouraged me from the ground, where new spring grass was growing up through dense, dead grass from last year that had started to become soil.

I nailed the wooden house to the tree. I had to swing the hammer upside down, left-handed. Driving the nail became a matter of coaxing it in a tiny bit at a time. That was the only way I could reach the nail from where I could place the ladder solidly enough so it would stay up until I finished the job.

Amanda left to drive down the mountain and join a friend for lunch. Far up the ranch, Leiza and I placed the ladder in another pine tree. Leiza climbed the ladder and nailed the second owl house into place. She started to apologize for how long it was taking her. I said, "The first one took me a long time, remember? We don't have a clock running on this job. The owls pay the same price if we finish in two minutes or two hours."

When the owl house was handsomely in place, ready for occupancy, I said, "I hope somebody likes the way we've set it up." We drove back down the ranch slowly, because the dirt road was rough, but even more because sunshine in forest and meadow said "linger and see the afternoon in the mountains."

Two bluebirds flew across the road ahead of us and landed on an old rail fence. Neither of us said anything, but we knew the birds had paid their rent just by being there. Seeing them, blue as mountain sky, with places to live and continue their species, was generous payment for our work.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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