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Bluebird Box Afternoon

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Boston anymore.

I was doing a million things around the house today when the phone rang. It was Jeff Warren, a neighbor who has been putting up bluebird boxes for years along his pastures and haymeadows. Not long after we moved here, I got nosy about who was doing this, and put a note and one of my bluebird booklets (Enjoying Bluebirds More) in one of his boxes, along with my phone number. We struck up a friendship. Little did Jeff know at first that I was plotting a coup. My plan was to eventually replace Jeff's boxes, which were mounted on fenceposts and thus vulnerable to raccoon and snake predation, with Gilbertson PVC boxes, mounted on conduit and baffled against climbing predators. It took me a few years to work up to it, not from any reluctance on his part, but from inertia on mine. Monitoring Jeff's boxes last summer finally lit a fire under me. I wanted to see what was actually happening in those unprotected boxes.
Now, last season was brutal for bluebirds, baffled or not. April and May were absolutely frigid. We had a major snowstorm--6"--on April 24, when all the boxes were full of naked baby bluebirds. Of 92 eggs laid in my baffled boxes, 52 resulted in fledged bluebirds--a 56% success rate. Which stinks, but nobody can control the weather. In the Warren boxes, 46 eggs laid resulted in 15 fledged bluebirds. And five of those fledglings were fostered in from my trail. So the unbaffled boxes had a 32% success rate (closer to 21% if you don't count the babies I brought in). It was clear that something major had to give. Their well-kept pastureland and hayfield is terrific for bluebirds, and we need to boost that fledging rate.
So I went to the plumbing supply store and bought a bunch of 1/2" iron rebar, 1/2" aluminum conduit, hose clamps, 2' lengths of 7" stovepipe, caps for said stovepipe, and a punch to make a hole in the caps. Ordered a case of PVC bluebird houses from my genius friend Steve Gilbertson in Minnesota. And I made a dozen box and baffled mount setups.
So when the Warren boys called today, I was ready for 'em. There were five box setups ready to replace the fencepost mounted boxes. Eventually, I want to have boxes all along their road, but there's time for that. I have this vision of checking bluebird boxes all the way into town. It's insane, with all the stuff I've got to take care of, but there's so much good habitat, and with the right predator baffles and timely monitoring, you can really crank the baby bluebirds out.
Even with the chilly weather lately, the bluebirds are nesting. We've been traveling so much lately that I'm grateful it's been cold, holding them back a bit--I just haven't had time to throw the box setups together and get the replacement boxes up. There's a nest already started out by our mailbox, and a full nest by the garden. That garden box needed to be replaced, as the coons got over its baffle last summer. So I just put the bluebird nest in a new Gilwood box with a bigger baffle, in the same place. I think she'll accept it and appreciate the upgrade to first class. Bluebirds aren't dumb, and ours have figured out that we do a lot of things to help them out.
When Jeff and brother Jay rolled up, they cut such a figure in their Carhartts that I had to take a picture of them.
Jeff couldn't resist showing me his Bubba special cell phone,with its scrolling message, "Stars and Bars Forever." There's something about those Warren boys (everybody around here calls them the Warren boys) that makes me laugh. They are so cool. From the amount of attention they were paying to Chet Baker, it occurred to me that, as occasional readers of this blog, they were probably here as much to hang out with our famous pooch as for my fancy bluebird box setups. So we made a formal portrait.
Baker thought the Warren boys were just keen, and he wanted very much to ride along with them and help put up bluebird boxes, and maybe round up a few calves for them. So he jumped in Jeff's truck, which prompted Jeff to yell, "Get out of that truck! You'll get all dirty!"
I was mighty glad the Warrens were going to take down their old boxes and put up new ones, because I have some boxes of my own to replace. And I know that the minute the weather warms up, the bluebirds are going to be stuffing grass in them as fast as they can. So for the rest of the afternoon, I wanked away at the baffle caps with my punch and hammer and vise grips. Blood blister city. The baffle rests on a little hose clamp secured to the conduit. You just slip it down over the top of the conduit until it hits the hose clamp. Supported like that, it wobbles when anything, including a raccoon or one of our Boone and Crockett 5' black rat snakes, tries to climb it.
You've got to get down and secure the conduit to its iron rebar support, or the pipe will swivel in the wind. I'm screwing things down tight.
I've got three more to replace before it warms up. I'll do that tomorrow, on my grocery run. I can't wait to start counting bluebird eggs. I'm trying not to think about last April, when for two whole days I had to go box to box, taking the nests and chilled babies out, putting them in a little insulated cooler with a hot water bottle, waiting until they were warm enough to gape for food, feeding them with tweezers, and then replacing them in their boxes. I pulled them all through the subfreezing temperatures that way. Four times a day, each box... But it is not an experience I hope to repeat this spring, because it was literally all I did for those two freezing cold days. Let's hope it warms up and stays that way. The brown thrasher is due tomorrow, and I've got to get my peas and lettuce planted!
I should not be wearing a hat and parka on March 26.

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