Around the Island

Bluebird comeback on Shelter Island relies on volunteers

DON BINDLER PHOTO | A bluebird spotted on Shell Beach in a red cedar. They feed on its berries in the winter.

With a bit of help, the beautiful and melodic but unfortunately uncommon eastern bluebird might be making a comeback.

The small thrush, famous for sitting on James Baskett’s shoulder as he sings “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in Disney’s movie, “Song of the South,” happens to be the New York state bird.

The songbird’s “tu-wheet-tudu” call is rarer than it once was due to a loss of habitat, rough winters and competition for nesting sites with introduced bird species like the house sparrow.

“In 1940, Roy Latham, a wonderful North Fork naturalist, counted 400 bluebirds at Orient Point. Now we’re lucky if we count 20 at a time,” said Islander Bill Zitek, a director of the New York State Bluebird Society and retired veterinarian with the North Fork Animal Hospital.

Grassroots efforts over the last 25 years to stop the bird’s decline have focused on setting up and maintaining nesting boxes. Their success led to the removal of the species from the state’s endangered, threatened and special concern list in 1999.

A bluebird nest box program was begun at the Mashomack Preserve in 2001. “We started out with 30 nest boxes and now we’re up to 47,” said Dr. Zitek, head volunteer for the nest box project. In the program’s 12 years, “We have fledged 320 bluebirds and 860 tree swallows.”

Paired boxes are set five to 15 feet apart. Every year in early April, volunteers clean out the nest boxes posted throughout seven of Mashomack’s meadows to prepare for bluebird nesting. Volunteers return once a week to observe what’s happening in the nests and record their findings. They recorded 15 bluebird chicks in the first year and were up to 48 chicks in 2011.

The information that volunteers gather is sent to Cornell University’s ornithology department as part of Project NestWatch.

The first bluebird eggs are seen in the beginning of April. “I think the earliest bluebird eggs we’ve recorded were on the 11th of April,” Dr. Zitek said.

Islanders interested in helping the local bluebird population are invited to attend a program at which Dr. Zitek will speak at the Mashomack Preserve on Thursday, March 22 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Call Mashomack at 749-1001 or email [email protected] to let them know you’re coming.

Also, the North Fork Audubon Society has invited the public to hear John Ruska, president of the New York State Bluebird Society, speak on Thursday, April 5 at the Red House at Inlet Pond County Park in Greenport. For information, contact Dr. Zitek at 749-2766.

For those who wish to set up their own nest box or nest box trail, Dr. Zitek said half the battle is thinking about where not to place a nest box.

Though bluebird families require two to 25 acres of territory during mating time and will not nest side by side, they will tolerate a tree swallow family next to their own. Tree swallows generally nest a month after bluebirds.

Bluebirds will often have two clutches of eggs per year. “A couple of years ago, we had a third clutch,” Dr. Zitek said, but that is a rare occurrence.

Typically, bluebirds will have four or five eggs in a clutch. Eggs take 12 to 14 days to hatch, and 17 days after hatching, the chicks are mature enough to “fly out into the real world,” according to Dr. Zitek. He said all the nest boxes are “aimed at” a tree 50 to 100 feet away where the chicks will fly and continue to be fed by their parents for another two to four weeks.

A box should be set up at least a hundred yards away from a barn or house or bushes. It should have an entrance hole no wider than 1 1/2 inches.

“The idea is to stay far away from house sparrows,” he said. “I would rather people have a smaller box to enjoy house wrens than have a bluebird box that is taken over by house sparrows.” Dr. Zitek said an intruding house sparrow will kill a mother bluebird and her eggs or young and then construct its own nest on top of the dead.

“The best habitat is an open meadow, perhaps with fruit trees, where a bluebird can nest easily and safely,” he said.

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