Bluebird Watch: Now is the time for more of us to take note

Data from citizens will make a difference for decades to come

Apr 17, 2022

There was a time a bird’s nest didn’t mean much to me beyond it being in an interesting location, an “oh lookie here” moment or one that proved a nuisance. But these days seeing to it that my generation leaves behind a continuing lifecycle of birds for future generations is more deeply rooted.

That continuation of life becomes more precious as we learn how easily it disappears.

Fewer quail, fewer turkeys, hardly any prairie chickens, less habitat and fewer songbirds, it slowly sinks into the soul, even if we don’t really notice.

The loss might not be top of mind, but something stirs enough to bring a brighter joy when we know of a successful hatch or see or hear something we might have not noticed for a while, especially if it’s up close and personal.

Early this week a bald eagle startled Whiskey and me as we walked out of the house. It was eating a big carp it apparently dropped on our next-door neighbor’s front lawn. I’m not sure if it was that yellow Lab’s sudden jumping stop or the flourish of that giant bird’s wings filling the space between the sidewalk and the street curb that I noticed first, but it was a fantastic surprise as we rounded the back of my truck.

A decade ago such a sight would have been unheard-of in suburban Oklahoma.

Individually, something in all our souls missed the eagles, but until we see them and hear them filling that void what was lost often is not fully appreciated.

While the eagles are bouncing back, those game birds and other ground-nesters and the less noticeable birds of all sorts are in need of help. I can’t help but feel there are connections across the board—from bluebirds to big ol’ tom turkeys.

Our children and their children’s children should know the woodlands thunder of turkeys gobbling, the prairie tunes of the bobwhite quail and meadowlark, as well as the springtime songs of the bluebirds, white-throated sparrows, and titmice.

A male bluebird flies to its nestbox to look in on the female and their eggs. (Kelly Bostian/KJBOutdoors photo)

What we need to do now is not just notice them but make a record anywhere that we can.

Taking notes is easier than you think, does not kill the romance of the sighting, and is as close as your mobile device.

Evidence in the form of data is the key to what will drive future decisions and act as medicine against the doubters and the apathetic.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides great tools in apps like the counting and monitoring app eBird, identifying apps Merlin (descriptions), and BirdNET (bird songs), but the one that is top-of-mind today is NestWatch—especially when it comes to our bluebirds.

As insect-eating cavity nesters, eastern bluebirds are a huge success story where broad-based human assistance with nesting sites is concerned. Their recovery with help from manmade nests is second only to purple martins, I would guess.

Those birds provide an easily accessible data point for us, not to mention beauty and joy in our backyards, and more of us need to take note of them—and take notes.

NestWatch has been a regular stop for me in the spring. The nationwide data collected is an incredible storehouse of observation of nesting attempts and survival of a wide variety of species on a statewide, regional and national level.

The lack of feathers on the belly of this female eastern bluebird shows she likely is brooding. (Kelly Bostian/KJBOutdoors photo)

The annual summaries for Oklahoma are disappointing, however.

Cornell notes: “Any analyses conducted using sample sizes of less than 50 nest attempts for a single species during a single year should be interpreted very cautiously.”

I pulled up annual summaries for the eastern bluebird for all of Oklahoma from 2007 to 2021 and the most nesting attempts ever monitored was 51 in 2017.

We had a pretty good run with 35 each in 2011-2012 and 40 in 2013. That was up from just one nesting attempt reported in 2010.

I first wrote about NestWatch in the Tulsa World in 2011 and had a lot of great feedback from Tulsa World readers on columns that followed my Bixby backyard bluebirds for a few years.

I wonder if I had something to do with that “bump,” if not through encouraging others with my writing I can at least say the 10 nest attempts I recorded over those three years accounted for 9% of the total 110 reported.

C’mon folks, I know there are a lot more of you out there with a bluebird nest nearby.

The stats can inform future generations, but they aren’t worth much if such a small sample comes for our state year after year.

Nest success—defined as the number of fledglings produced for eggs laid— was 100% in 2010. One successful nest with four eggs and four fledglings doesn’t tell us much about an entire state, however.

The lowest success rates were noted during years of higher participation. The rates in 2011-2013, hit 60%, 65% and 52.5% consecutively. In 2017, the one year that Oklahomans reported more than 50 nest attempts, the success rate was 72.5%.

According to my entry history for my one bluebird box, I am now monitoring “Attempt #21” since I first erected the thing and, much to my delight, had birds nesting in it a few weeks later, on March 11, 2011.

The last attempt there started three years ago, on March 21, 2019. It ended with a rat snake devouring the full nest on May 2. Of the total of 77 eggs laid over that time, 35 fledglings left the nest. For a couple of years, we had a female who just seemed to have a hard time producing fertile eggs. High heat took one clutch of young. House sparrows and European starlings got a few, and then of course there was the snake.

As of Good Friday, the bluebird house in our backyard is home to four naked, sightless eastern bluebirds. The fifth egg didn’t hatch. That’s a pretty typical showing.

I’m watching that nest like a hawk, and monitoring its progress in NestWatch come what may.

I’m also reporting on the mourning dove nest on the front of my house, and the fish crow nest back behind the house—and any others I happen to find that I expect I can visit for a few seconds every three or four days while they’re active. It’s easy to punch in a few numbers and notes that will last forever online and at Cornell.

We can find God’s little miracles everywhere when we look for them and now, for everlasting survival in the natural world, the nests of today need to live on in the form of data.

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Barely a few hours old, naked and sightless eastern bluebird chicks lie next to an egg that is yet to hatch. (Kelly Bostian/KJBOutdoors photo)