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Bluebirds rank high in Thorn Creek Audubon Society’s pecking order

Alice McBride Park Forest carefully checks nest tree swallow.  |  Susan DeMar Lafferty/Sun-Times Media

Alice McBride, of Park Forest, carefully checks the nest of a tree swallow. | Susan DeMar Lafferty/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 11, 2014 6:22AM



It’s a perfect June morning, and Aura Duke and Alice McBride are ready for a walk at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve near Beecher.

Armed with binoculars, screwdrivers, maps and charts, they hike through grassy fields along a bluebird trail, where they monitor these stunning blue-winged creatures with the bright orange chests.

“Why just walk in the woods when you can walk and enjoy nature?” McBride said.

They eye the birds’ nesting boxes from a safe distance with their binoculars.

“There’s a tree swallow on top of that one,” McBride said.

She approaches slowly and politely knocks on the nesting box before opening it with her screwdriver. A tree swallow flies out.

“There were five eggs inside last time,” Duke said, consulting her charts. Five eggs remained. “I thought they would be hatched by now.”

This was a tree swallow’s nest — obvious by the feathers that lined it. Bluebirds include a soft cup of grass in their nests, while wrens prefer twigs and sticks.

Any of these species will build a next in these boxes — including unwanted ones, which is why they must be monitored.

One can learn a lot about Eastern bluebirds and other species walking along with Duke because she has been monitoring them closely for at least 30 years.

Duke and McBride, both of Park Forest, are among 25 volunteers with the Thorn Creek Audubon Society who take turns monitoring 106 bluebird boxes — including 48 at Goodenow Grove, 20 at Monee Reservoir and two dozen at the Central Park wetlands in Park Forest. Glenwood School students and staff monitor another 14 boxes on their property.

The Will County Forest Preserve District recently recognized the efforts of these dedicated volunteers, but Duke said, “It’s about the bluebirds, not the volunteers.”

As a longtime member of the Thorn Creek Audubon Society, Duke recruits and trains volunteers such as McBride.

“I didn’t want her to miss the fun,” said Duke, who got involved in the bluebird project in about 1980 when the population of bluebirds — once among the most common songbirds in America — had been “dropping drastically.” Some estimates pegged the decline at 90 percent of the population.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, this was due in part to several factors: the use of insecticides, because bluebirds feed on insects; and loss of dead trees and wooden fence posts, where they typically would build nests.

The North American Bluebird Society started a bluebird trail and members of the Thorn Creek Audubon Society wanted to do something, too.

“It’s a worthwhile project. We’re interested in birds as a whole,” Duke said.

Along the trail at Goodenow Grove, wooden nesting boxes with a roof overhang are placed in pairs, about 100 yards apart, facing an open area, preferably north or east.

In teams of two or three, volunteers start in March, checking the boxes after winter, to clean them and make repairs. One opens the box and another takes notes.

If mice, wasps or ant colonies have moved in, they must be evicted.

Duke compiles the data and sends it to the North American Bluebird Society and the IDNR.

Volunteers monitor the boxes once a month, but Duke said her team goes three or four times a month “just because I want to see what’s going on.”

Right now, there is all kinds of activity.

As they approach Box No. 40, McBride spots a bluebird on top of it through her binoculars, but it quickly flies away. When she opens the box, it is empty.

“I bet by next week there will be a nest,” Duke said. Perhaps that bluebird was just checking out available homes in the neighborhood.

“This year has been slow because spring was cold. They took their time with nesting activity,” she said.

In about an hour, they have checked on 10 boxes.

Three were empty, five contained the nests of tree swallows and two were bluebirds.

If there are eggs, they count them and write it on their color-coded chart. The number of baby birds is noted. Another box previously contained four eggs but now there were none.

“Maybe they fledged,” — hatched and left — Duke said.

“It changes constantly,” she said.

All conditions are carefully recorded, so when other volunteers monitor the same boxes, they know what to look for and record any changes they have discovered.

Sometimes, their discoveries are not as pleasant as a newly hatched little bluebird, but it is all part of the natural cycle.

Ants and mice, which may move in over the winter, are the biggest problems, which is why Duke carries a bar of Dial soap in the satchel slung over her shoulder. The soap discourages the ants, she said.

Snakes have been known to eat the eggs, or other birds will crack the eggs. If the eggs are cold, they look around for the mother.

Male wrens like to build dummy nests, which volunteers have to remove to make room for bluebirds, Duke said. And sometimes even humans damage the boxes.

“It’s always interesting. It’s always a struggle for the use of the boxes,” she said. That’s why bluebird boxes are mounted in pairs, to avoid competition that exists among species that use boxes, including tree swallows, bluebirds and wrens. It’s not unusual for all three to use the same box in a month.

Once they leave, fledglings do not return to the nest. The mother bluebird, however, gets busy and may use the same nest again for a second brood, Duke said. Swallows, on the other hand, brood once.

So far this year at Goodenow Grove, Duke has tallied eight bluebird nests, eight eggs and 27 babies who have fledged. The swallows have occupied 13 nests, with 69 eggs, but none has hatched. Wrens have two nests, and 11 eggs, all unhatched.

In mid-August, they clean out the boxes and get them ready for winter, leaving no nests for the mice.

For volunteers such as Duke and McBride, this is much more than a walk in the woods; it is “a real connection with nature.”

“You connect with what you are seeing and you are part of it. You see the fruits of your labor. You see the whole cycle,” said McBride, who also loves to photograph hummingbirds at Plum Creek Nature Center. “You’re with someone else, so it’s not a solitary job. It’s fun. It’s a totally nice experience.”

They end their walk at the Plum Creek Nature Center, where she exchanges information with staff and finds out what they have seen.

“People think we are crazy, but we understand each other. When there was a problem, something had to be done,” Duke said of their efforts. “It’s always a wonder. It’s always a surprise.”



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