Around the Island

Mashomack Musings: Bluebirds come back strong

Few species have come back from the brink of extinction. The Eastern bluebird is one of them. But it wasn’t sheer luck that saved this bird. It was a group of people who came together to reverse the damage that had been done.

Bluebirds declined across North America in the 1900s, largely due to the loss of habitat, dead tree (“snag”) removal, pesticide use and a growing number of aggressive, non-native bird species. As cavity-nesters, bluebirds rely on natural tree cavities for laying their eggs and rearing their young. When snags are removed or when aggressive competitors like European starlings and house sparrows move in, bluebirds are less likely to produce offspring.

The solution? More viable nest sites.

Hiking Mashomack’s meadows you see paired “nest boxes” scattered across the landscape. Over the last 20 years these small, wooden birdhouses have been critical to the first phase of a recovery effort, providing artificial nest sites built specifically for bluebirds.

Arranging the boxes in pairs allows for highly territorial tree swallows and more accommodating bluebirds to nest next to each other, while reducing competition between the two species. Each week of spring and early summer, a committed crew of volunteers has recorded the state of each nest the number of eggs laid and how many young survive another week in the challenging first season of life.

Over the past few years, volunteers recorded extraordinary nesting densities of bluebirds, surpassing the natural or expected population density for an area of this size.

Thanks to decades of hard work in back yards, parks and nature preserves, Eastern bluebirds are thriving both locally and across the continent. According to the State of North America’s Birds Watch List, they are currently doing better than 93% of all bird species in North America.

At Mashomack, our bluebird conservation success story would not have been possible without dedicated volunteers giving their time and passion. Particular thanks go to Dr. William Zitek, who founded the program, and Linda Hacker, who has led the effort over the last few years.

What’s the next chapter in this success story? Will bluebirds rely on human intervention forever? How do wildlife managers support a truly sustainable recovery? Could we modify the program to help birds thrive on their own?

At Mashomack, we’re asking ourselves these questions.

Beginning this year, we are implementing a new grassland management plan to improve habitat for the bluebirds and other meadow-loving plants and animals.

We will maintain snags so that bluebirds have natural, as well as artificial, nest sites. Volunteers will still monitor half the nests up close while others will begin distance monitoring using binoculars for the remaining boxes, observing how well breeding pairs and their offspring are doing.

By managing the entire ecosystem, we hope to provide habitat where all grassland species, no matter how big or small, can thrive.

Mashomack Preserve is owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature thrive. Our mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. To learn more, visit nature.org.