Why help the bluebirds

Yesterday my son and I attended an orientation session to learn about the bluebird project his Cub Scout den will be helping with. I’ve heard about this project each year, but never took much interest, as it was something the older boys did. Now my son is in third grade, he will be bridging to  Webelos in May, and his Bear den has been invited to help with this year’s bluebird project .

The boys will help construct nesting boxes, mount them in areas where bluebirds have nested in past years, and monitor them regularly to observe evidence of nests, eggs, and eventually young bluebirds. Success is measured as the percentage of eggs that hatch and result in “fledged” birds (those who fly away from the nest).

As the representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained the program to the boys, the question in my mind was “Why should we be helping the bluebirds?” If they can’t manage on their own, without the help of our nesting boxes, what long-term good are we doing? It’s one thing to try to restore a damaged habitat, or to give temporary aid to an animal population until its numbers grow sufficiently to manage on its own, but there was no indication that this is a temporary project. (Our pack has been doing it since 2004.)

I’m sure it will be very educational for the boys, and I hope also fun. They’ll have to develop/use skills with tools to make the boxes, follow instructions to properly prepare and mount the boxes, take detailed observations and record them, and be consistent in checking back to monitor the nests. Already they have learned how to recognize the nests and eggs of different types of birds. (While the boxes are primarily to benefit bluebirds, tree swallows are also welcome. Chickadee nests are to be left undisturbed if there are eggs. Nests and eggs of house wrens, sparrows, or starlings are to be removed.)

The paperwork we were given explained reasons why the bluebirds need our help, primarily habitat loss due to human activity, and non-native species of birds that compete with the bluebirds and, being more aggressive than the bluebirds, take over their territory. Since the habitat loss is due not only to clearing land for new development but also the removal of deadwood, the replacement of wooden fenceposts with metal ones, and the spraying of orchards with insecticides, I can see trying to set aside areas that make good bluebird habitats and even offering them some free housing.

But if the problem is with the wrens, sparrows, and starlings, and in open competition for territory the bluebirds will lose, what are we really accomplishing by helping a few more bluebirds fledge each year? Are they important to the local ecosystems? I know there are people who like bluebirds, and the project may be a good one for our Scouts. But what is the interest of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in all this?

I checked the USACE website to see if I could learn more. I found out that their mission is to

Provide vital public engineering services in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy, and reduce risks from disasters.

I also learned that

The Military Programs Environmental Division serves the nation through superior management, design and execution of a full range of cleanup and protection activities:

  • cleans up sites contaminated with hazardous waste, radioactive waste, or ordnance
  • complies with federal, state, and local environmental laws and regulations
  • strives to minimize our use of hazardous materials
  • conserves our natural and cultural resources

The Corps also has a Civil Works environmental mission that ensures all Corps projects, facilities and associated lands meet environmental standards. The program has four functions: compliance, restoration, prevention and conservation.

I understand the Corps’ involvement in efforts to combat the Emerald Ash Borer, because (as I learned from this site) ash trees make up about a quarter of the deciduous forests in the eastern part of our country. Ash is a valuable wood, used for lumber and furniture throughout the Mississippi River valley. Moreover, if efforts to eradicate the ash-killing insect (by removing all infested trees) succeed, the ash can continue to thrive without constant human intervention. (However continual monitoring would be necessary to see if the pest had somehow survived and begun to spread again.)

But I don’t see the same factors in bluebird conservation. And in all the websites I’ve looked at today, I have yet to find one that projects a full recovery of the native bluebird population to the point that they’ll do just fine even if people don’t maintain and monitory their nesting boxes.

My mother always taught us not to feed wildlife, because they would come to depend on it. Then if and when we moved away (or even went on a long vacation), they would go hungry because they wouldn’t know where else to find food. If we did not feed them, they would either find other food sources in the area, or move to where they could find food on their own. Providing food or housing materials for wildlife simply invites them to make homes where we have made it easy for them, even if it’s not an area where they can survive long-term on their own.

I’m fine with doing this project as a Scout den – it should be a fun learning experience (I’m looking forward to getting some good pictures). I’m fine with people who like bluebirds helping increase their numbers. If our efforts now make it possible for the bluebirds to get along in the future without our help, I’ll be pleased that we could help. What I don’t know is why it should be a concern of the USACE.

And when my son gets tired of the trips out there to monitor the nest boxes (and he will – just during the hour-long orientation yesterday he announced at least three times that he was bored) and asks me why we have to do it, I want a better answer than “because that’s what our pack always does.”

The website of the North American Bluebird Society provides an educational packet which gives at least one practical reason to help the bluebirds – their preferred diet is insects, and they control harmful insects for us. (It doesn’t mention whether we lack other species that would do the same for us.) The society’s membership brochure says that effective conservation is succeeding in restoring the three species of North American bluebirds (Eastern, Mountain, and Western). What I haven’t yet found in their materials is an explanation of how the restored population will be able to maintain itself without continued human intervention.

Another organization’s educational booklet explains that people have always loved bluebirds for their beautiful color, gentle nature, and soft warbling song. They have long been associated with peace and happiness. I’m glad there are private organizations of bluebird lovers who want to see bluebirds thrive across our nation. I’m more than willing to participate in this project with my son. But I’m still puzzled by the USACE’s role.

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