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Bluebird lady on mission to bring songbird back

Kay MacNeil who is known as bluebird lady Frankfort holds deceased bluebird she found bluebird house near her residence Friday

Kay MacNeil, who is known as the bluebird lady of Frankfort, holds a deceased bluebird she found in a bluebird house near her residence Friday, June 8, 2012, in Frankfort. The birds are vulnerable to sparrows. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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For the birds

For more information about becoming a local bluebird monitor, contact Kay MacNeil at (815) 469-1294.

For more information on nesting programs, establishment of bluebird trails and nest box blueprints, contact the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at Natural Heritage Division, 524 S. Second St., Springfield

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Updated: September 9, 2012 11:29PM



Now that the bluebird is making a comeback in these parts, can happiness be far behind?

Once among the most common songbirds in America, the bluebird sadly started disappearing from Illinois’ landscape about 50 years ago.

The longtime inspiration for poets and songwriters fell victim to habitat destruction as well as a new crop of predators, namely non-native sparrows.

Kay MacNeil first learned about the plight of the bluebird 20 years ago.

“One day our garden club decided to put up bluebird houses. Someone asked if anyone had seen a bluebird and we realized that all we’d ever seen were blue jays,” she said.

One thing led to another, and soon the Frankfort resident found herself establishing bluebird trails.

A trail consists of five or more bluebird nesting boxes mounted on posts. Through various projects and with the help of many Boy Scouts, MacNeil set up trails in the Prestwick subdivision, at local schools, along the Old Plank Trail and in the Frankfort Square wetlands. There also are trails in Mokena and Orland Park.

“They like to nest in dead trees that have been hollowed out by woodpeckers, or in old fence posts,” she said. “There are very few wooden fence posts anymore and what happens when a tree dies? People cut it down.”

MacNeil, host of the cable-access TV show “The Avant Gardener,” has a few dead trees on her Prestwick property. She’s waiting for them to rot and for woodpeckers to have at them. Then, she hopes, the bluebirds will come even closer to her home.

Right now, they’re often spied along the perimeter of the Prestwick Country Club golf course.

“I peeked in one this morning and saw a tail,” she said, excitedly.

But when she opened the box a few hours later, she realized the blue tail had not moved since her earlier sighting. The bright blue bird with a soft orange belly was dead, likely the victim of a sparrow. Aggressive birds like to trap the bluebirds in the box and peck at the heads of adults or at intact eggs.

“Nature is tough,” MacNeil said. “This is so irritating.”

It is an uphill battle, for sure. The bluebird builds a nest of soft grasses. It’s not uncommon for wrens to come along, slap a few twigs on top and call it home.

In those instances, MacNeil simply removes the wrens’ handiwork, hoping the bluebird will return.

“Bluebirds have a long history, they’re a symbol of happiness,” she said. They’re said to be family oriented, peaceful and clean.

They’re also featured in many songs and poems, from Disney’s “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” to Paul McCartney’s “I’m a Bluebird.”

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “The bluebird carries the sky on its back.”

Tim White, groundskeeper for Prestwick’s golf course, said he sees bluebirds all the time, thanks to MacNeil’s efforts.

And that’s a good thing. Not just because the birds are beautiful and thought to be harbingers of good luck, but because they help gardeners by eating insects.

MacNeil is looking for more people to sign on as volunteer monitors. She’d also like people to set up their own bluebird trail. Place the nesting boxes in pairs about 100 yards apart, facing an open area. Entrance holes should be 4 to 6 feet above ground and should face north or northeast to prevent sunlight from shining directly into the hole and overheating the box, according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources instructions.

“I’ve noticed in about 50 percent of nests we’ve set up, nothing happens,” she said.

But when something does happen, it’s almost magical.

For more information about becoming a local bluebird monitor, contact Kay MacNeil at (815) 469-1294.



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