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Build bird houses for the benefit of the birds

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have had a bulldozer at my place doing some construction projects at the farm for a few weeks. My wife and I decided to go check on the progress the other afternoon.

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On the way to the farm, we noticed several forms of wildlife struggling to get around in the deep snow. We saw several deer, almost belly deep, plowing with their front hooves trying to reach whatever vegetation may have been so deeply covered. We saw a large flock of turkeys, pecking and scratching where our Amish neighbors had fed some grain to his cattle.

The most surprising thing we saw was a group of 15-20 male bluebirds in the middle of the gravel road. I knew the males migrate back north several weeks before the females, but they must have been sorely disappointed to return to 18 inches of snow. They eat mostly insects. With the recent weather, insects have to be pretty scarce. I do not remember seeing a bug of any kind since sometime in November.

When we got to the farm, we were able to drive down a path cleared by the dozer. He bladed the snow off a large area and left the grass exposed. A herd of deer were browsing the unprotected grass and the tops of the hickory trees that had been pushed over. A large flock of turkeys milled about scratching and picking up the uncovered hickory nuts. We also had our own group of male bluebirds, hopping around among the deer and turkeys, finding whatever they could. The assorted wildlife flew or ran off a short distance when we passed and converged back on their smorgasbord when they no longer felt threatened.

I learned a couple of things from this trip. Wildlife really does appreciate a little help in the hardest part of winter and it is never too early to put out your bluebird houses.

Male bluebirds start the search for a nesting spot and wait for the females to arrive to impress them with their wise decisions. Sometimes they make good choices and sometimes not. They will check out any cavity in the area. This includes natural cavities in trees, holes made by woodpeckers in fence posts, chimney pipes, and tinted windows that only look like they might be a large hole in a building.

Last year, we had two incidents from not-so-wise choices made by bluebirds. We went to the cabin one weekend in early March and heard scratching sounds coming from the chimney of the wood stove. It sounded like a mouse trying to get out, just above the damper. I opened the wood door and opened the damper, not sure what would fall out. A soot-covered bluebird fell into the ashes of a long-since burned out fire. He batted his beady little eyes at me and tried to reorient himself. I grabbed the unfortunate little animal and took him outside. He sat on the porch railing for a moment and flew off. He seemed none the worse for the experience, other than being more black than blue. He may have trouble attracting a mate the way he looked and he will not bring one back to the chimney. I crawled up on the roof and covered the opening with screen.

A few days later, my wife and I were at the dining room table, drinking coffee and trying to pry our eyes open as the sun rose. A loud thump on the window startled both of us. We jumped up and looked outside to see what had happened. A male bluebird was standing on the patio, looking more than a bit disoriented. I went outside, picked him up, and placed him safely on top of the gas grill. He apparently thought a four-foot round window might be the opening to a really nice nesting place. He might have been right about it being a nice nesting place, but it is not for birds. Several minutes later, he flew away.

Now is the time of year to clean out your old bluebird houses and make a few more. They will move into almost anything, and a nice man-made house is a lot safer for them than many places they can find.

Walter Scott is an outdoors enthusiast and freelance writer from Bloomfield, Iowa.

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