Bluebirds’ best friend seeks more converts

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2013

Once upon a time, Bill Abbey says he didn’t know the difference between a bluebird and a crow.That was many years ago. Now Abbey, who has been the Bluebird Trail Monitor at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons for more than three decades, is considered to be an “expert” on attracting, sheltering, feeding and the general well being of Eastern Bluebirds in the area. Abbey is quick to point out that he’s no “expert” on the subject. However, those in attendance Saturday afternoon at the Clemmons Public Library for his discussion on the “Elements of Successful Backyard Bluebirding” would certainly beg to differ. Abbey, who is the Forsyth County coordinator for the N.C. Bluebird Society, went through a slide show and showed a video on “Bluebirds in the Nestbox” for the attentive crowd while also displaying nest boxes and answering a flurry of questions. The program was presented by the Tanglewood Nature Education Department.
Abbey became interested in bluebirds after moving to the area and living close to Tanglewood. “One day I went over there, just walking, and I saw these decrepit, beat-up, falling-apart boxes,” he says. “ I went to the assistant park director, Ron Linville, and he said a guy came out in the mid-70s and put them up and then just went away.” Abbey didn’t know then but now knows that’s something you shouldn’t do. “That’s a no-no, first of all,” he says. “He was an idiot. You don’t leave boxes that you’re not going to attend to because you’re going to get unwanted species. You have to invest in it. So he said, ‘go for it.’ I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know a bluebird from a crow.”
For starters, Abbey found someone who lived toward Lexington who knew a great deal about bluebirds.“He knew all about them and what to do,” Abbey says. “And I got some books and read up on them. I learned a lot of things by doing it wrong. But I figured it out and talked to people. I belonged to the (N.C. Bluebird) Society, and they gave me a lot of assistance. Expert is not my word.”
However, he gets plenty of calls about bluebirds, and he is happy to share the knowledge. Abbey covered a wide range of topics in his presentation on Saturday with the emphasis on getting started with bluebirds by putting up nest boxes and the nesting schedule. According to information from the N.C. Bluebird Society, this is the time bluebirds are selecting nesting territory. In April, they begin nest building, egg laying and incubation with April 15-May 15 being the period for the first brood of eggs to hatch, June 1-July 25 for the second cycle and Aug. 1-Aug. 15 for the third and final cycle. Abbey discussed putting up the nest boxes in open areas with scattered trees and low or sparse ground cover, and where water is available. The nest box should be placed on some type of pole (not a tree) about five- to six-feet tall (depending on the height of the person putting it up), and it should be regularly monitored.
That’s what didn’t happen at Tanglewood … until Abbey came along. “I’m out there almost every day,” he says of maintaining the bluebird trail at the park. Bluebirds were one of the state’s most common songbirds prior to the 1930s, but by the 1970s, they were declared “rare and uncommon” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as human activity (including a loss of woodlands and the increasing use of pesticides) and some severe winters resulted in a 90 percent decline in the bluebird population. Abbey, who graduated from college with a degree in forestry and then spent 20 years as a helicopter pilot in the Army before teaching in the Junior ROTC program at Reynolds High School for 18 years, said that the bluebird nest boxes came along in the 1970s and played a key role in saving the species.
“There were survival issues,” he says. “The 1970s was the low point.” And that’s about the time Abbey discovered bluebirds.“I didn’t know anything about birds,” he says. “I still don’t. I know a lot about bluebirds.”
Besides the walk that day at Tanglewood when he witnessed the decaying boxes, what else attracted him to bluebirds? “There were a number of factors,” he says. “One, I had never seen a bluebird before, and I thought that was a cool-looking bird. My neighbor said, ‘why in the world are you putting up bluebird boxes because there are no bluebirds?’ Well, now he’s got a box.”
For more information about bluebirds, and perhaps getting started with nest boxes and attracting birdbirds, visit …