2017-06-27

Wild Hope — Bluebird Man

I recently discovered the magazine Wild Hope and was instantly drawn to the beautiful design and photography and message of hope, celebrating nature’s rich biodiversity and sharing inspiring stories of people helping to preserve what sustains us all. I’m thrilled to now offer this magazine at Wilder Goods, you can purchase the latest issue 03, here.

Wild Hope was created by Kathryn Arnold. The idea grew out of her time volunteering at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, and the International Bird Rescue Center in Cordelia, CA, and meeting so many people who were also volunteering their time to help save other species. Kathryn is a magazine editor by profession and a media consumer. She felt as though everything she was reading in the media about climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction ignored the large numbers of caring people who are endeavoring to preserve our biodiversity heritage and focused only on the bad news. She wanted to tell the hopeful stories of people who are working really hard to prevent wild species from going extinct and hopefully inspire other people to get involved. So with a background in publishing and experience in wildlife rehabilitation, the natural next step was to create Wild Hope. Below is a story from the first issue and the inspiration behind starting the magazine. 

1 man, 27,000 bluebirds

When 93-year-old Al Larson began putting up bluebird nesting boxes on his ranch in southwest Idaho 35 years ago, he didn’t set out to save the declining populations of his favorite birds from disappearing. He merely wanted to be able to photograph them up close. His hobby turned into an obsession, and he established five bluebird trails with 300 nesting boxes, which he has maintained and monitored all these years. Now bluebirds are plentiful in Idaho. The extensive data he has kept on the production in his nesting boxes has even become the stuff of a scientific study. And a documentary film, Bluebird Man, has just been made about Al. After viewing the film, we were inspired to share his story with the Wild Hope community and called him up for an interview. The accompanying photos of Al and his bluebirds were taken by Matt Podolsky, one of the producers of Bluebird Man.

Wild Hope: What inspired you to start putting up bluebird nesting boxes?

Al Larson: I was out hiking with my wife and we saw a western bluebird nest in an old tree cavity and I took some pictures of it. Then it dawned on me that if I put out nest boxes I’d have a captive, you might say, subject to take pictures of. It hit like a wave in the ocean. Once I put the nest boxes up and had some occupants in the boxes, something made me want to do more.

WH: You grew up in southwest Idaho. Over the years did you notice that the bluebird populations were declining?

AL: I wasn’t aware of it except for what I read in National Geographic or heard about from the North American Bluebird Society. They were alarmed at the decline of the eastern bluebird and they started putting nest boxes out. That got me interested in putting nest boxes out here for attracting the birds. I wasn’t focused on trying to bring back the population of bluebirds. That wasn’t my prime objective. It just worked out that way.

WH: So you put up a few nest boxes so you could photograph bluebirds, how did that become 300?

AL: I put up 25 boxes on the ranch the first year. Five or six had bluebirds in ‘em. About the same time, I took a field trip with Audubon out into the Owhyhee County up in the high mountains at about 6,000 feet. It was in the fall and there was a flock of 50 or so bluebirds out on the hillside. I thought it would be a nice place to put boxes up for bluebirds. So I put 25 boxes up out there.
It became a passion I guess. To keep adding boxes. It made me feel good. I just liked being out there with the bluebirds. I didn’t put out 300 all at once. It just kept growing. The number of boxes just kept creeping up. I finally reached the point to where I was getting home late at night. I didn’t have enough time in the day to monitor all these boxes, do banding and all that. One particular time I was out from early morning, banded 156 nestlings, and got home about midnight. I banded the last ones in the headlight of the car. When a person extends his time out like that, you have to back up a little bit and say, hey, you gotta make this a little easier. So now I don’t put up any additional new boxes. I replace some of the old ones. Like last fall we had a big fire up at Prairie that destroyed 39 boxes. I have replaced those now and the birds are starting to come back to those boxes. I wanted to see if the bluebirds would come back to the territory after it had been burned over, or how long it would take them to come back.

WH: Do bluebirds return to the same nesting cavity each year?

AL: A large percentage of ‘em do. I’ve captured one female three years in a row in one box. I had banded her as a nestling about two miles away from her nest box.

WH: So you’ve seen birds that you’ve banded returning to the area?

AL: Yes, about half of the birds I observe have bands on. I don’t know where my other banded birds go or where unbanded birds come from. Since I do have a lot of birds coming back to the same box or same area, maybe the unbanded birds were raised in a natural cavity within a quarter mile of my bluebird trail.
I have caught one bird in a nest box that was banded near Banff, Canada, and another one that had been banded up in Missoula, Montana. So they were nesting up in those places and I caught them in my nest boxes, so they do travel. Not all of them go back to their natal area.

WH: Do you keep a count of the bluebird nestlings you find in your boxes?

AL: Yes. Over the years I’ve raised over 27,000 nestlings. On my better years I’ll have 1,200 or so. Some of my poorer years it’s only 900.

WH: What is the reason for the poor years?

AL: The weather. The birds start nesting early in the spring. They don’t start incubating until they lay their last egg. When you get freezing weather and those eggs aren’t being brooded, they are killed by the cold. The eggs just don’t hatch.

WH: We’ve heard that non-endemic bird species like European starlings and house sparrows compete with bluebirds for nesting cavities, oftentimes evicting bluebirds from their nest boxes and destroying the eggs or killing the nestlings. Do you see this happening?

AL: I don’t have house sparrow or starling occupants in any of my boxes simply because I’m out away from the starling or house sparrow territories. I do have competition with house wrens, tree sparrows, and chipmunks. I even have flying squirrels in some of my boxes. But I’ve got so many boxes out there; I accept it as nature and let nature take its course. While I lose some birds to predators, I have enough production in those boxes to really have a significant replacement population.

WH: How long does the bluebird-breeding season last? How many months of the year are you monitoring nesting boxes?

AL: Birds don’t all start laying eggs at the same time. The early birds will start laying eggs in the later part of April, and that’s what gets them in trouble with the cold weather. The other birds will start laying eggs progressively right on through the end of May. And then after they raise the first brood, a lot of them will go for a second brood. And they will have nestlings in the box in July. I’ve had ‘em in the boxes as late as the middle of August. So I’m monitoring these boxes from April to August.

WH: So how many times will you visit a nesting box in one breeding season?

AL: I don’t visit each box every time I go out. I visit the box the first time to determine what’s in there, and that tells me when I have to get back out there to band those little birds before they fledge. If I find no eggs in a nest, I know it’s going to be about 33 days before there could possibly be baby birds in there 14 days old. So that’s when I would time my visit to that box again. I might visit it on the beginning of the month and there’s nothing in there, so I won’t have to visit it again until the end of the month. If I go out there and find some nestlings in a box that’s just hatched out; I have to come back within 14 days to band ‘em. I don’t want to disturb ‘em after they’re 14 days old because they’ll fledge prematurely. I would rather have ‘em fledge naturally, so that they’re able to fly when they fledge. Now, if I find a box with one egg in it, I can figure it takes five days to lay the clutch of eggs, another 14 days to incubate ‘em, then I’ve got another 14 days before I need to band ‘em. The production in the nest tells me when I have to go back out again to catch the birds before they’re too old to band. I like to band ‘em when they’re eight or nine days old.

WH: This certainly sounds like a logistical challenge. How do you keep track of when you need to return to a nest box?

AL: I keep records. When I first open a box, I write down what I see there. If it’s an empty box where there’s a little bit of nest material brought in, or a little more, or a nest finished. I write down how many eggs I see in there. I write down how many nestlings I see in the box. I try to determine if they fledged or not by the condition of the nest after it’s been vacated. After I come home at night, I transcribe my field notes onto my computer.

WH: That amounts to a lot of data over 35 years. Has anyone ever used your data for a scientific study?

AL: Yes, a researcher at the University of Idaho in Moscow used some of my data on bluebird egg laying dates for a study on climate change. [editor’s note: WH contacted the researcher, Joe Holbrook, a PhD. candidate in the University of Idaho’s Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Sciences, to find out about the study. Holbrook analyzed 20 years of Al’s data on the nesting habits of bluebirds along two of his trails and found that as the mean springtime temperature increases, bluebirds lay their eggs earlier. The study is part of a large-scale study of climate change in Idaho that will be published in a future issue of the journal, Climate, Weather, and Society.]

WH: How many times will you return to one of your bluebird trails over the breeding season?

AL: Nine or 10 times, but I don’t check every box every time I go out, only if I know there’s something that requires my attention.

WH: So you band every nestling?

AL: Yes.

WH: Why?

AL: I get my bands from the Bird Banding Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey (http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/). I have to report to them every band that I put on a bird. You have to indicate the location of where you band the birds as well. People who are making a study of bluebirds can then go to the Bird Banding Laboratory and get this information that the birds were banded at such and such a place. That information is available for anybody. If somebody finds a banded bird somewhere, they can read the band number, send the number into the Bird Banding Laboratory, and the person who banded the bird then will get a report on where the bird was found. A couple a years ago I got a report about one of the birds I banded was down in central New Mexico in the spring. It gives you information on the longevity of the birds and their migration patterns.

WH: You’re 93-years-old now. Who’s going to carry on your work when you no longer can?

AL: I’m wondering that myself. The Audubon Society is going to take over one or two of the trails to monitor. I don’t know if they’ll keep records like I do or not. I hope they do because it’s pretty important to know the life history of a bird. Like one person said, they might need 20 people to take my place. And each one of those people will see the condition of the nest a little differently than I did, so you’re gonna have variation in the data, not consistency. Hopefully, there will be experienced observers.

WH: In the film Bluebird Man, we see you leading a fieldtrip on one of your bluebird trails. Is this something you do often?

AL: Yes, I lead fieldtrips for Audubon, the Southwestern Idaho Birders Association, and for families who just want to go out and see a bluebird trail. I like to hand a freshly banded bluebird to somebody. It’s things like that that inspire people to take an interest in the birds. Everybody likes to hold a little bluebird.
When I first started putting the boxes up, I’d put ‘em up on fence posts. It wasn’t unusual to find one or two of the boxes shot up pretty bad. I had quite a bit of vandalism. But over the years the vandalism has declined a whole lot. People are getting to enjoy the bluebirds. People have gotten around to saying, “Hey, we’ve got bluebirds up here!” I think perhaps that by my having the bluebird boxes out there, I’ve changed the attitudes of a lot of people I don’t even know.

[sidebar] Wild Lens: Focus on Conservation/ or Films Starring Wildlife
Bluebird Man is a production of Wild Lens, a not-for-profit video production company that brings filmmakers and biologists together to solve wildlife conservation issues. To watch a preview of the documentary, order a copy, or learn how to set up a bluebird trail, visit http://www.wildlensinc.org/bluebirdman/. Wild Lens co-founders Matt Podolsky and Neil Paprocki say that their goal in making a documentary about Al was threefold: 1) To use the film to re-inspire people about the Idaho state bird, and possibly find a long-term solution to help continue monitoring of Al’s bluebird trails; 2) To tell the unique life-story of Al Larson, which by itself shadows the history of Idaho and much of the west; and 3) To inspire the next generation of bluebird enthusiasts around North America to take up the torch of environmental stewardship that has been passed onto them by the original bluebird conservationists. Other projects by Wild Lens include films about the Masai giraffes, ptarmigans in northern Alaska, and the vultures of East Africa.

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