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Back from the brink, Eastern Bluebirds flock to Shirley


SHIRLEY — While spring cleaning may be a looming chore for many of us, Natalie Delorey looks forward to the seasonal rite of clearing out the house, but with a distinctive twist. The clutter she deals with consists of last years’ nests from a series of home tooled bird boxes. Since 1994, Natalie, and husband Norman, have set up and maintained dozens of Eastern Bluebird nesting boxes throughout Shirley and the surrounding area. During the late winter and early spring, the Deloreys visit their boxes, clear debris and fix or replace them to make them ready for this year’s influx of nesting pairs.

In the 1970s, the once-numerous Eastern Bluebird began a precipitous decline as hundreds of acres of grasslands with scattered trees were, as Delorey put it, “scraped up and bulldozed over” for malls and housing. This specialized habitat was crucial, both for providing trees for the cavity-nesting birds and as host habitat for the insects that made up the bulk of their diets. As a result, the Eastern Bluebird population plummeted by 90 percent in twenty years.

Braving the elements in heavy jackets, hats and sturdy boots, the Deloreys recently led a tour to some of their most successful nesting box sites. Delorey recounted how, as a child raised in Acton during the 1970’s, she witnessed a dramatic change in land use. A passionate animal lover and outdoor girl, she remembered staring out of the school bus window in horror as the landscape changed, seemingly daily.

“I just thought, ‘Where are (the animals) all going to go?'” she said. The decline of the bluebirds affected her profoundly. “When I was five, I remember that my mother showed me a bluebird at my house. I thought it was fabulous. I didn’t see another one until I was 25.”

In the face of this serious threat to the bluebird, the Audubon Society enlisted the help of hundreds of concerned individuals. Throughout the 1990s they launched an initiative to save the bluebird and taught land and home owners who possessed grassy yards with trees to set up series of nesting boxes to form “bluebird trails” throughout the state. Thanks to ten years of diligent work by people like the Deloreys, who rallied to the cause, the Eastern Bluebird has returned to the countryside and the population is rebounding.

The tour began in the Deloreys’ front yard, where four nesting boxes were arranged in a row across their front lawn, spaced roughly ten feet apart. “We’ve done this so they all get a southern exposure. Sometimes people will put the boxes back to back, but this is what we learned at an Audubon Society talk,” Norman Delorey said. The society recommended placing multiple boxes, he added, as competition for them can be strong.

“The bird community is very competitive over nesting sites. We usually see a fight out here between tree swallows, bluebirds and the obnoxious English sparrows,” said Natalie. Pointing to the first box in the row, she joked, “This house is the one that every one wants. That’s the prime real estate. They will do hideous battle over that box.”

As they have numerous boxes, the Deloreys are equally delighted to see them used by house wrens or tree swallows and leave their nests undisturbed until the young are grown.

Although their primary focus was providing boxes for the bluebird here was ample time for everyone to use them, Norman explained. “Eastern Bluebirds nest two, sometimes up to three, times a year. So, a lot of times, if you clean out after a swallow, then a bluebird will move in for their next nesting,” he said. This ability to produce more than one brood is one reason why the ‘bluebird trails’ initiative has been so successful.

A carpenter by trade, Norman uses rough-cut pine to create the boxes. The design, a four-inch square box with an overhanging roof and small entrance hole, appeals to bluebirds as it resembles a snug tree cavity. Norman uses salvaged wood whenever possible to avoid contributing waste and leaves the boxes unpainted to provide traction for fledglings as they make their way out of the nest.

At another site, Natalie showed how the front panel of each box was secured by a nail, which could be easily removed to allow them to slide out the panel and examine the contents. She flipped over the panel to show where Norman had carved fine grooves, or kerfs, up to the entrance for the fledglings to cling onto. The enclosed bluebird nest consisted of a cup of woven grasses and pine needles. It takes the female between two and six days to create, and once the brood have fledged, the nest will be abandoned.

One box held a house wren’s nest of twigs.

“The males may take a house that they never intend to use to rear their young but they try to entice a female by showing how industrious they are” said Natalie. She pointed to the way the wren had woven cardinal and greenfinch feathers into the structure of the nest and quipped, “Perhaps these are little offerings to his sweetie.”

In another, a nest is lined with fragments of moss which was characteristic of a chickadee or titmouse nest. A couple of boxes also held triple-decker nests as house Wrens, tree swallows and bluebirds clearly moved in one after the other.

There were some surprises too. At one site, a female field mouse had augmented a nest with grasses for her nursery. Natalie carefully patted everything back into place, “Field mice are native wildlife and are part of the ecology,” she said, “so I leave them alone.” In the last box, a Flying Squirrel had taken up residence and scolded visitors indignantly for disturbing it.

When asked if they had a favorite nesting box site, the Deloreys didn’t miss a beat in nominating the town landfill.

“I love the dump. It’s my favorite place.” Natalie said. “I’m really proud of it.” It took some creative problem solving to get permission to place boxes on the former town dump because they were not allowed to sink posts into the surface. Instead, Norman filled used joint-compound buckets with cement and placed a recycled fence post inside each one. Once the cement dried, the Deloreys had portable supports for the boxes. For Natalie this was part ingenuity, part Yankee frugality.

“I think recycling is a New England tradition,” she said, “We’ve always done it, we’ve just never called it that.”

The landfill now has a healthy population of Eastern Bluebirds. Norman recalled how competition for the nesting boxes was so fierce that whenever they finished replacing a damaged box they would only have time to walk a few yards away before a breeding pair would swoop down to claim it.

In Natalie’s opinion, their success at the landfill inspired her.

“Life comes back,” she said. “It regenerates and restores. In springtime this place is just alive.”

MassWildlife has produced an informational flyer for those interested in attracting these beautiful birds to their gardens. Audubon bluebird boxes can now be purchased at Audubon sanctuaries and online at