Preparing A Trail In The Fall Or Winter

“They’ll be back”

Fall is an ideal time for working on your bluebird trail. The crisp, cool mornings, along with the turning of the leaves, make it a great time to walk your trail and to experience the ‘great outdoors’ before winter temperatures and snow set in.

First, look over your past records and see which boxes have not been used by bluebirds (it pays to keep good records). If a box has not been used in the last three to five years, there’s probably a good reason why a bluebird hasn’t used it. Sometimes moving a box as little as 20 feet or changing the direction the entrance hole faces can make a difference. Maybe you’ve had boxes that sparrows or wrens have shown a particular interest in that should be moved or eliminated. Both of these species can be very persistent in staking a claim on a box, making it unavailable for bluebirds.

A common mistake made is putting boxes too close together. Again, check your records to see how many adjoining boxes have been used. One hundred yards has always been the recommended distance between boxes. However, recent thinking is that unless the boxes are located in excellent habitat or the view between neighboring boxes is obstructed (by a hill or tree, etc.), 100 yards may be too close. Boxes spaced too close together will greatly favor attracting tree swallows as their territory is not as large as that of the bluebird. If tree swallows use more than 50% of the boxes on your trail, try pairing your boxes 15 to 20 feet apart.

If your boxes are mounted on trees, wooden posts, steel t-posts where predation has occurred, remount your boxes on smooth round pipe. For added protection, you may want to add a coat of high-quality grease to the pipe in the spring.

Check your boxes for any needed repairs. Roofs are usually the first thing that needs to be replaced. A leaky roof will result in a wet nest which will greatly increase the chances of nestlings dying from hypothermia. Take along some extra roofs, nails, screws, and miscellaneous tools (such as a hammer, screw driver, cordless drill, pliers, & wire). If vandalism has been a problem, replace the nail securing the door with a screw. You might have to replace boxes that are beyond repair. Take along a few extra boxes and perhaps try a different style of box.

If you find a box that wasn’t cleaned out after the last nesting, a putty knife and whisk broom will be helpful. If a box contains a mouse nest, you must be aware of the Hanta virus which is spread through mouse droppings. If mice are a problem, the box can be left open until spring. If sparrows have been a problem, leaving the box open may also help to keep sparrows from claiming the box before the bluebirds arrive. Ventilation holes can be plugged which allows the box to be used for winter roosting by other native birds.

Besides being an excellent time to make necessary repairs and adjustments to your own trail, fall is the ideal time to get someone started in bluebirding by setting up a new trail. Please share what you’ve learned with others. With trails ready, the anticipation of the fun and excitement that comes with the return of the bluebirds will help your winter pass more quickly.

Originally printed in Bluebirds Across Nebraska Newsletter BANner Volume 10 Number 3 Fall 2003