Citizen-led Bluebird Recovery

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1978

The bluebird, an American favorite, faced disaster when the non-native house sparrow took over much of its habitat. Both birds are cavity nesters, and the sparrows will often kill bluebirds and destroy their eggs to occupy desirable spots. In 1976, bluebird enthusiast Larry Zeleny published a book entitled The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight For Survival, and the next year he placed an article in National Geographic pointing out that despite their precipitous population decline there was hope for bluebirds if only everyday landowners would take a few simple measures: put out nesting boxes with entry holes just 1½” in diameter (small enough to exclude most sparrows), and then provide a little monitoring and regular maintenance. “There is not much the average person can do to help the bald eagle or the whooping crane, but an individual can help the bluebird,” summarized ornithologist Chandler Robbins.

In 1978 bluebird lovers spontaneously organized themselves into the North American Bluebird Society, followed shortly after by 15 active state-level societies. The next year, Parade magazine printed a story for its 15 million readers called “You Can Hear the Bluebird’s Song Again.” As a result, the society received 80,000 letters requesting a copy of its brochure on how to help bluebirds. It took volunteers three months to get all those requests answered, but soon memberships were flooding in, and nesting boxes were popping up in fields and orchards across the country. The NABS history notes that “no tax money has ever been sought by the society. Funding for programs and operational expenses has come from dues, donations, and profits from the sale of bluebird-related items, along with corporate grants, awards from private foundations, and bequests.” These philanthropic efforts have had great success. To take an example from one representative state: a 1979 bird census found just 22 bluebirds in Minnesota; today the state population is estimated at 25,000.