Half Past the Month

May 9, 2020

WE OWE TO NOBEL PHYSICIST Niels Bohr our definition of an expert. He is someone, preferably from out of town, who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.

I am an expert — in bluebirdology.

More narrowly, I am an expert on how to get the ugly, bad-mannered chirpy house sparrows to leave the beautiful, indigenous bluebirds alone so they can build a nest in your backyard and sing their song of spring, a reassuring, soft, low-pitched chortle.

So please don’t ask me questions about kingdom, phylum, class or order. And no, I don’t know about mating habits, migration patterns, incubation or much else concerning bluebird private matters. I leave that to ornithologist and others with way too much time on their hands.

I began the path to bluebird mastery late one winter 28 years ago. The hometown newspaper had printed plans for a bluebird box. It was recommended as a family project, so my son Tim and I headed to the workbench, pounded out our version and installed it on a shaky pole in the backyard.

Now, a bit of bluebird lore: The native Americans believed that the bluebird call warded off the powers of winter.

As a bluebird expert, I know that to be true. Within an hour of our installing that first box, a bluebird pair arrived. Their call was sounded and the weather turned. We have heard a bluebird in our backyard every year since, just as winter first begins to break. (My son, incidentally, became a bluebird expert just like his old man, managing a bluebird trail at his college’s nature preserve.)

But back to the bluebird nemesis, those nasty little brutes the house sparrows. It is important to know that they are usurpers, rightly and legally classified as pests. You will not find them mentioned in any of the myriad laws protecting seemingly every other species that flies, swims or walks on earth. In short, they do not have to be treated with respect, or even kindly.

The obnoxious bird was introduced into New York City (where else?) in the mid-19th century to control linden moths, whatever they are. I learned that from the woman minding the counter at our corner hardware store.

I had purchased what is known in northern Indiana as an Amish sparrow trap, the last of about $300 worth of mistakes in sparrow management equipment. I asked what to do with the sparrow once it was trapped.

“Well,” the grandmotherly woman said, “you can drive them out into the country and set them free . . . or you can stick their heads into your car exhaust pipe for a minute or so. That’s what I do.”

That last did not strike me as a healthy father-son activity, so we made a few trips driving trapped sparrows to the country before looking for a better way.

We found it in what is called the Gilbertson-style bluebird house. The Gilbertson is not a box, but a PVC cylinder made to look like birch bark. Bluebirds like it, sparrows do not. More specifically, the female sparrow does not.

At this point you need to know that a pair of sparrows, all things being equal, will defeat a pair of bluebirds for any nesting hole — every time — and that includes in my frustrating and expensive experience those specially engineered bluebird boxes with the latest anti-sparrow devices.

Your job is to make sure that all things are not equal, especially the food supply.

That means giving the bluebirds something for which to fight, i.e., mealworms. Bluebirds love the creepy little things, sparrows could care less. You will need a plexiglass-enclosed feeder box with bluebird-sized holes to keep out the blasted starlings and such. You fill the feeder box with a couple of handfuls of mealworms, the dried kind you can buy at the lawn-and-garden store.

Later, when the eggs hatch you will need live mealworms from a tackle shop, a couple of 500-count boxes for each bluebird brood. If they are too expensive, order a mealworm farm kit.

But the dried mealworms will get the bluebirds’ attention. An ample supply will buff them up to a point they can chase off even the most persistent buck sparrow.

Next you employ that Gilbertson cylinder. Don’t be discouraged when a buck sparrow takes possession by sitting atop it making that irritatingly monotonous call to prospective mates. He will even place a few pathetic twigs of ownership inside, his idea of macho. Throw them away.

Yes, the little devil may fool one of the less discerning females but when she goes inside she won’t like the cylindrical layout and will leave him alone sitting woefully atop the Gilbertson.

Finally, in the rare case where a block-headed female sparrow shows signs of sticking around, turn the cylinder hole to face the pole and deny her access. Turn it back around when she gives it up and you spot bluebirds again. The hole should normally face away from prevailing spring and summer winds.

The bluebirds will drive away the buck sparrow, move into the Gilbertson and incubate a clutch of smallish blue eggs, laid a day at a time. In a few weeks there will be baby bluebirds (if the exact number of eggs or days is important to you, again I say call an ornithologist).

The Gilbertson cylinder is easy to detach so you can show the babies to the neighborhood children as often as you wish. The bluebirds don’t mind much. They seem to like humans, or at least are bemused by us. Indeed, after a season or two they will flit around your head at mealworm time as if in a Disney movie. Some of our earlier bluebird boxes were mounting on our daughter’s busy swing set.

A final tip or two: Locate the nest away from any brush or garden plants that a snake might use as leverage to get its head in the hole, especially after a rain when snake sniffers are optimized. Also, you might want to install a raccoon-squirrel baffle.

There, that should do it. Your backyard will be graced with happy flashes of bright blue and your winters will be short.

You can take it from an expert. Guaranteed. — tcl


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