Nest box program aims to bring bluebirds back to the North Fork

BILL ZITEK COURTESY PHOTO | Two Eastern bluebirds light on a nest box at Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island.

With a bit of help, the beautiful and melodic, but unfortunately uncommon, Eastern bluebird might make a North Fork comeback.

Anyone interested in lending a hand can learn how during a special program on Saturday, April 7, at the Red House at Inlet Pond County Pond in Greenport.

The Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) is not only 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” — it’s also 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 Bill Zitek, a director of the New York State Bluebird Society and retired veterinarian with the North Fork Animal Hospital.

John Ruska, president of the New York State Bluebird Society, will speak during the April 7 session, starting at 7 p.m. His comments will be more than just wishful thinking.

Grass roots movements to create and maintain nest boxes led to the removal of the species from the state’s endangered, threatened and special concern list in 1999. A bluebird nest box program began at the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island in 2001.

Paired boxes are set five to 15 feet apart. Every year, volunteers clean out the nest boxes posted throughout seven of Mashomack’s meadows in the beginning of April to prepare for bluebird nesting. Volunteers then 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 volunteers gather is sent to Cornell University’s ornithology department as part of Project NestWatch.

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

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. 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 meeting for those interested in learning about or volunteering for the Mashomack project will be held Thursday, March 22, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the preserve. The program is free to Mashomack members, $5 for nonmembers, and requires advance registration. Call Mashomack at 749-1001 or email [email protected].

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.

He advised setting a box up at least a hundred yards away from a barn structure or bushes and with an entrance hole no wider than one and a half 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.

A well-known symbol for happiness, prosperity and new life, the Eastern bluebird was designated the state bird by Governor Nelson Rockefeller on May 18, 1970.

[email protected]