Janesville38.2°

Rural Johnstown man keeps birds happy with nesting boxes

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Anna Marie Lux
July 19, 2014

JOHNSTOWN TOWNSHIP—Birdhouses line the half-mile driveway to Harlan Rook's rural home.

If you're lucky, you might see some of the occupants flitting from trees to bushes and back again.

Rook stopped counting after he built more than 100 nesting boxes to attract mostly bluebirds.

This year, tree swallows, chipping sparrows and wrens took over many of the houses.

Some blame it on a late spring.

“We can't say for sure what happened,” said Kent Hall of the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin. “But the nesting season for bluebirds started two weeks later than normal because weather patterns were quite cold.”

In a good year, Rook has as many as 25 pairs of bluebirds at his 35-acres east of Janesville. This year, he has a handful.

The decline appears to be statewide.

Because bluebirds were late in arriving, other cavity-nesting birds already had staked out many bluebird houses, Hall said.

Hall keeps track of the number of bluebirds fledged in almost 10,000 nesting boxes throughout the state.

He speculates the bluebird population may have declined last winter because of recurrent ice storms. Bluebirds winter from the southern border of Wisconsin all the way to the Gulf Coast and live on mostly berries.

“Ice from storms coated the berries,” Hall explained. “Then the birds can't eat them, and they starve.”

Still, he said the prognosis for the brilliant bird is good for the second half of its breeding season.

Lower temperatures, like those of last week, are the reason. Normally, bluebirds lay their second clutch of eggs when the heat of July is at its worst. High temperatures in nesting boxes can cause eggs to begin developing before the mothers incubate them, and the embryos die.

“It shows you how critical weather and climate are to the success of nesting birds,” Hall said.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, the number of bluebirds plunged to an alarming low in Wisconsin. In part, the decline was due to lack of natural nesting cavities.

Today, the state's bluebird population is the highest in 50 years because concerned residents put up and monitored nest boxes.

“We have a lot of people who care about the species,” Hall said.

Rook counts himself among them. He began building bluebird houses in earnest after retirement from General Motors a few years ago.

“I don't sit well,” Rook said. “I needed something to do.”

Surprisingly, Rook said he is not a bird watcher. Instead, his wife, Sally, keeps the binoculars and bird book handy.

“I sit on the deck a lot, where I can see the bird feeders,” she said.

In addition to putting up birdhouses on his property and his neighbors' properties, Rook put up 10 houses in Nebraska while at a family reunion.

“We've taken out all the fence rows where these birds used to live,” Rook said. “We spray our crops with chemicals that kill all the bugs the birds eat. I want to do something to help out the birds.”

Rook's son is a builder who brings his dad scraps of wood. Rook then cuts, drills and screws them into one-bedroom models.

The Vietnam veteran has been tweaking his birdhouse designs to keep out water and house sparrows. Some houses have air vents. Some have oblong holes. Some swing open from the top for cleaning.

The birds seem satisfied.

“I haven't had any complaints yet,” Rook said. “Not one.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.



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