By Ashley Ahearn
As the days grow longer and temperatures rise, Western and mountain bluebirds are migrating back to the Methow Valley, and they’re finding new homes when they arrive.
Local residents volunteered time on a recent Saturday morning to install more than 40 bluebird nesting boxes at several sites outside Winthrop, in partnership with the local offices of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the Methow Conservancy.
Western bluebirds tend to stick to the valley floor and lower elevation areas, while their mountain cousins head for higher elevation. The birds typically arrive in early spring to mate and fledge their young in the valley over the summer, before migrating south to Mexico and Central America in the fall. The birds are insectivores and both varieties of bluebird are cavity nesters, which means they look for holes in old trees in which to build their nests.
Problem is, they can’t drill the holes themselves.
“Bluebirds rely on woodpeckers to make these holes for them,” explained Mary Kiesau of the Methow Conservancy, who helped coordinate the volunteer work. “There just aren’t enough trees to go around and often when trees get to the point of having holes in them they fall down or are cut down. Bird boxes are a great way to help.”
The new boxes were built by WDFW employees over the winter. Patrick Hannigan, of “Nice Nests” at TwispWorks, also contributed several handmade nesting boxes, some of which were installed on the new riverside Cottonwood Trail off Highway 20 by the Methodist church.
Julie Hovis, a retired wildlife biologist who volunteered to help install the boxes, will be monitoring their use throughout the hatching and fledging season. She wants to see what species of birds use the boxes, how successful they are reproductively and if they have any predators.
“Just because I’m retired doesn’t mean I was willing to stop studying birds. I wanted to do something that would contribute to natural history and support wildlife management,” Hovis said. She’ll be sharing her data with NestWatch, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science project that is gathering information about bird populations and reproductive success, nationally.
In the mid-1900s, bluebirds were in trouble across the West as a result of loss of nesting habitat due to logging and development, as well as competition for nesting sites with introduced species like European starlings and house sparrows.
People in the valley have installed bluebird boxes for decades, but many of the boxes were destroyed in recent fires or are in need of cleaning and repair.
“They weren’t being maintained, some were falling apart. Some had been taken over by other birds,” Hovis said.
House wrens, another species native to the valley, will fill the nesting boxes with small sticks, effectively crowding out the bluebirds. Tree swallows will also move in to take over the boxes. It’s best to clean the boxes out after each nesting season.
Bruce Holsinger has half a dozen bluebird boxes on his property outside of Winthrop.
“The tree swallows take over the majority of our boxes,” he said, adding that he’s also observed a very determined little wren repeatedly stuffing sticks into one box until it was so full there was no room for the bluebirds to use it — or the swallows, for that matter. But for Holsinger, providing nest sites feels like the right thing to do.
“We’re taking over the planet. We use up all the resources. This is an attempt to give back to the natural world. It’s a little thing. It’s a joyful thing,” he said.