There is an old belief that bluebirds bring happiness. Watching one of these bright-colored thrushes skim above a field in my Montana valley, I feel my heart lift and know that this is true. Thirty years ago, bluebirds wouldn’t have been part of my summer. I would have been lucky to see one at all. By the 1970s, the bluebird population was in precipitous decline throughout North America. According to Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, author and founding member of the North American Bluebird Society and writer for The Progressive Christian, the eastern bluebird population had declined by more than 90 percent in the last 100 years. The pretty songster was changing from a common backyard bird to a rarity in the field.
In the mid-1800s, house sparrows and starlings were introduced from Europe and began to compete with bluebirds for the same nesting sites–cavities, often made by woodpeckers, in trees and wooden fence posts. Sadly, as competition for nesting places increased, the habitat itself began to disappear–cities sprawled into suburbs and farming changed radically. Old wooden fence posts were replaced by metal ones or simply removed when farmers abandoned ranching. Fencerows where wild berries grew all but disappeared. Bluebirds no longer could depend on the juicy fruit as a source of food when the insect season ended. And insects themselves–grasshoppers, crickets, ground beetles, and grubs, the bluebird’s main food sources–were being drenched with pesticides, shrinking the number of available bugs and making the ones that survived toxic to the birds. “Progress” seemed to be leading down a road that looked barren, devoid of insects as well as birds.
But this bleak scenario never came to pass. Thanks to concerned citizens nationwide, bluebirds are making a comeback. Groups ranging from schoolchildren to retirees have helped put up nesting boxes for them. Working on faith that nature can mend itself with some help from its friends-as well as encouragement from the North American Bluebird Society (founded in 1978)–these dedicated bird lovers have set up “trails” of bluebird boxes (above) along country roads in nearly every state. You’ll find them on golf courses in Connecticut, in vineyards in California, and in backyards in Kansas. They build the boxes. They check on them and clean them out at the end of each season, sealing the entrance holes to prevent other birds from moving in. They share their records with researchers. Many people start out with a couple of boxes in their yard and become hooked on bluebirds. They’ve gone on to establish trails with hundreds of boxes, drafting their friends to help out. Not for from my home, a bluebird lover named We ndell Oliverson has single-handedly erected a trail made up of an astonishing 1,600 boxes.
All this dedication has paid off According to the Breeding Bird Survey conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey between 1976 and 1996, the eastern bluebird population has grown by five percent a year, the mountain bluebird has increased by two percent, and the western bluebird population has plateaued, with no new losses. Although bluebirds are still struggling in states like California, overall the news is good. Here in Montana, of the more than 200,000 birds fledged since 1978, more than half hatched within the last six years. And in 1999 the Transcontinental Bluebird Trail, a coordinated network of trails stretching across North America, was begun. By the end of 2001, more than 20,000 nest boxes and 400 bluebird trails were registered.
What more meaningful legacy can we leave our children, our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren than a world where bluebirds are as much a part of summer as trees in full leaf and wildflowers peeking out from the bright-green grass? It’s good to know, amid all the bad news we receive about the environment, that there is something we can do to make the world a better place. The return of the bluebird is nothing short of a miracle, an act of giving accomplished by caring Americans working together–one bluebird house at a time.