(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 11, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Hosting a bluebird family has immense rewards as you may have read in the May article on Bluebird Nestboxes. If you've successfully hosted bluebirds, your next step may be the ultimate adventure in bluebirding — establishing a bluebird trail. A bluebird trail is a series of managed bluebird nestboxes. It is a commitment most are not prepared for but has immense rewards and educational value.
Bluebird trails are often found in parks, cemeteries, golf courses and pasturelands and even schools. These are all places where habitats are ideal for the bluebird as they provide low grasses where insects can be easily spotted. Such locations are often unfavorable to housing competitors such as sparrows (houses, feeding areas) and house wrens (wooded areas). For the most part, bluebird trail guidelines are the same as outlined in the nestbox article. Often though, houses can be placed in pairs to accommodate tree swallows.
Trails are monitored and maintained by both individuals and groups. If you are considering starting a trail, you might first volunteer as a monitor on a nearby trail. Consider this experience good training for your own trail. Perhaps you do not have the available time to commit to a trail but have a large piece of perfect land. In any case, contact a local bluebird club or society to see how you can participate in a trail.
Dave’s Garden member “muddlyou” (Susan) maintains and monitors a cemetery Bluebird Trail in Minnesota. Susan has agreed to share her bluebird trail experience with us.
Susan’s Minnesota Bluebird Trail
I currently have a seven-box trail in my local cemetery. I started the trail in 2006 with three boxes, after having noticed bluebirds there, but no apparent nesting opportunities. I’ve had a bluebird box in my backyard for five or six years, and have become progressively more intrigued with these gorgeous birds. I’ve done extensive reading about bluebirds and trail monitoring and I felt that I had sufficient experience and knowledge to start a trail.
First, of course, I had to get permission to put up boxes. In early spring of 2006, I went to the cemetery office with bluebird box and bluebird information in hand and made my pitch. After lots of talking and several visits, the head groundskeeper agreed that I could put three boxes (NABS boxes). We scouted good locations and the first three boxes were named and placed: Diana, Grace and Mabel. Unfortunately, by the time the boxes were put up, most bluebirds had already nested for that year and we didn’t even get a single claim straw. I did note, though, that there was lots of bluebird activity around the boxes in late summer/early fall, which I thought was a good sign for the 2007 nesting season.
It was indeed a good sign — 2007 was a huge success. Ten bluebirds fledged out of Grace (two clutches of five eggs each); nine bluebirds fledged out of Diana (one clutch of five eggs and one clutch of four eggs) and five chickadees (of five eggs) and three bluebirds (of four eggs) fledged out of Mabel. Including my nine “backyard blues”, I had 31 baby bluebirds fledge in 2007! Amazing!
I prepared a report of the cemetery bluebird activity for the cemetery to keep them in the loop and to grease the skids for my planned request to add more boxes. The groundskeeper was more than happy to add boxes, and even requested that he get to name two of the boxes: Irene and Taryn (slot boxes). The last two boxes (Peterson boxes) are Ruth and Maggie.
Based on last year’s results, I was expecting for 2008 an average of seven to nine bluebird fledglings per seven boxes, for perhaps 49-63 cemetery bluebirds. Minnesota, unfortunately, has had unseasonably cold weather this spring. We are a good two to three weeks behind where we normally are at this time of year, and bluebird activity has been equally slow. At last check, I’ve got three fully built bluebird nests (but no eggs) in three boxes (two slot boxes and one NABS box), a fully built chickadee nest in an NABS box, two Peterson boxes with no activity, and one NABS box that sadly housed a dead tree swallow on top of a partially built bluebird nest (I suspect that the bluebirds found the swallow in “their” box and wounded or killed it). Hopefully the bluebirds will resume building in this box, and will take up residence in the remaining two boxes.
For those of you interested in starting a trail, here are a few tips: READ, READ, and READ some more about bluebirds and trail monitoring (my “bible” is “The Bluebird Monitor’s Guide to Bluebirds and Other Small Cavity Nesters” by Griggs, Berger and Kridler); LOCATION is critical (cemeteries and golf courses are ideal); BE PREPARED to deal with issues that may arise (I carry a bucket containing the “tools of the trade” such as gloves, “nests” of dry grass (in case nests get saturated with rain water), a whisk broom (to sweep out blow fly larvae & wasp nests), and BE THANKFUL that we can help such lovely birds.
I am one of those fortunate individuals who grew up on rural land that has been in my family for decades. My parents and grandparents were avid gardeners who gladly shared their love of gardening with me. Today I enjoy a small yard in town with my husband, two dogs and a cat who is in charge of us all.