Monday, February 15, 2016

Oklahoma State Nest Box Program Has Staunch Supporter

Ann Freeman, of Elk City, has been monitoring eastern bluebird nest boxes for 29 years as part of the Oklahoma Nest Box Trails program. She stands with her very first nest box. (Jena Donnell/ODWC)
Just west of Elk City is a bluebird's paradise. Pastures brim with insects, scattered trees offer branches from which to perch and hunt, and a trail of bird houses is waiting should the birds decide to build a nest. This oasis is no accident; Ann Freeman and her husband have been maintaining these bluebird boxes, 22 in all, for 29 years.
   "I remember the first time I saw a bluebird," said Freeman. "One September day in 1986, I caught sight of these brilliant flashes of blue in our yard. The birds would perch in the trees and then fly to the ground. I watched them a long while and was so intrigued that I called my parents who lived nearby to see these brightly-colored birds. Being unfamiliar with this kind of bird, I later spoke with the lady who wrote a bird column in the local newspaper. She told me I must have bluebirds."
   From there, she researched the songbird and learned their natural nesting spot was an old woodpecker hole and that the birds and their nesting trees were getting pretty scarce. She also learned the birds would readily use man-made nest boxes and of a program to monitor their nests.
   "In early 1987, for our first nesting season, my dad helped us build six bluebird houses and a pair quickly took up residence in one of them. We fledged only one little bluebird that first year. We were hooked," Freeman said.
   Since that first bluebird chick, the Freeman's have counted 2,389 other bluebird chicks that have left the nest. At the end of each season, the family has reported the total number of eggs, chicks and fledged birds to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Nest Box Trails program.
   "It's not uncommon for bluebirds to nest three times within the season, so we are kept fairly busy with our trail from March through July. We check the boxes every four or five days. It takes about an hour to check them all," she said. "Most of the time we drive to the different boxes, but my husband will occasionally walk the trail."
   Over the years, family members have helped monitor the nest boxes. "At one time, our granddaughters were our 'secretaries.' They liked to jot down what we would find in each box," Freeman said.
   In addition to counting the number of eggs or chicks each box houses, the Freeman's are also monitoring for anything that may harm the bluebirds. "Bluebirds have a lot of enemies, so we have to be dedicated to checking the boxes."
   The Freeman's have found snakes crawling up the poles and have lost nests because of ants, but their largest problem is the nonnative house sparrow.
   "It's pretty easy to tell a bluebird's nest from a sparrow's nest," she said. "The bluebird builds a tidy cup of grass, but the sparrow will fill the nest box to the top. The sparrows are very aggressive and can take over a bluebird's nest in a matter of days."
   Because the house or "English" sparrow is not protected by law, the Freeman's are able to remove the sparrow's nests and somewhat control the nuisance birds. Their efforts have gone a long way to help the blue birds she first noticed 30 years ago.
   "It's a lot of work and there are disappointments, but it's mostly a joy," Freeman said. "Even after 30 years, when catching sight of those beautiful 'blues,' I still experience a feeling of excitement and happiness."
Join the Bluebird Movement by Building a Nest Box
   With $15 in lumber, basic woodworking tools and less than an hour of time, you can help cavity-nesting songbirds in your backyard. Find which supplies are needed and the individual construction steps to build your own nest box at