For thirteen years, volunteers have been maintaining a bluebird trail along the boundary of the National Elk Refuge. It is the largest Mountain Bluebird trail in the United States, and it provides essential nesting habitat for these iconic birds, as well as long-term scientific data. This citizen science project is core to the mission of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation: Combining science and the celebration of wildlife.
About Mountain Bluebirds
The brilliant-blue males arrive in Jackson Hole starting in March and begin to select and defend boxes. The pale blue-gray females arrive shortly thereafter and choose a mate based solely on the quality of the nest cavity. They build the nest to fit several eggs—similar in color to Robins’ eggs, but smaller. The males feed the incubating female, often hovering and diving to catch insects such as beetles and grasshoppers.
Phyllis Greene, long-time monitor and past project coordinator, has observed: “They lay one egg a day, but the eggs hatch out all at once. It’s fun to watch. I have seen the chicks peck out through the shell. When they hatch, they are the size of your pinky and nude. First thing, they have their mouths open for food. They are adorable.” The chicks develop pin feathers and then “become more of a bird.” The monitors observe the nestlings from afar after the first 12-14 days so that the birds won’t fledge prematurely. Then after about 3 weeks total, ”They fly off. ‘Ok, good-bye.’ It’s sad. They are so gorgeous.” Adult males depart Jackson in early August. The females and young leave a little later. These birds, considerably smaller than a robin, migrate as far south as Mexico and Central America.
Nesting success is tenuous. While Tree Swallows arrive two weeks later than Mountain Bluebirds – after many bluebirds have claimed boxes – they often out-compete the bluebirds when they would otherwise attempt a second brood. Tree Swallows are a beautiful, native bird, so their presence is enjoyed as well, despite the challenge to bluebirds. Future nestbox plans aim to accommodate the greatest number of both species. Also, according to project coordinator Tim Griffith, weasels and raccoons have been known to raid the nests, which lowers the success rate. Overall, the North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates Mountain Bluebird populations declined by about 26% between 1966 and 2014. We will continue to analyze our data to see how the birds have been faring here in Jackson Hole.
The Origin of the Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Trail Project
Chuck Schneebeck started the project in 2003. He read a study about the loss of aspens due to intensive ungulate grazing on the National Elk Refuge (NER). Bluebirds are cavity nesters, naturally using holes in old aspen trees carved out by woodpeckers or formed by a rotted tree limb. On the Refuge, the loss of standing aspens due to elk browsing meant the loss of nesting habitat. In an informal survey, “We found only one nest from Flat Creek to the Gros Ventre River, in an electrical box by the visitor center.” Chuck realized that to mitigate the impact of grazing, “We could build cavities: nest boxes.” Having worked on a bluebird trail for the National Audubon Society in Dubois, WY, he knew how to start.
From the beginning, Chuck engaged the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation and community. The Foundation provided funds for the materials and Chuck donated his labor. With the cooperation of NER, he and others set up 105 boxes 100 yards apart placed five or more feet high along the western boundary fence. Citizen science volunteers were assigned about 15 boxes each, which requires a mile walk and about an hour a week to monitor. They start surveying in April and continue into August. Monitors also help clean out and repair the boxes in the off-season.
The Monitoring Process
Phyllis Greene’s approach is, “We talk to the box and tap first, saying ‘Hi, coming to see you. How you are doing?’ Then we open the lid and look in. Mom just looks up and blinks her yes and says ‘how do you do?’ We close the lid then record what we saw. They don’t mind the monitoring and we never touch them.“
Phyllis goes on to say that the monitors become “very maternal or paternal. We want to give the birds a chance because they are almost extinct out here.”
While monitors are surveying along the road, people often stop and ask what they are doing. “We explain the project and they respond, ‘That’s great!’ People get excited and appreciate that someone is doing something for these little birds,” recalls Phyllis.
How do volunteers feel about the project?
For Chuck Schneebeck – project founder – while the project does not supply all the complexity that the bluebirds need, “We are doing what we can. The fundamental part is that we have cavities and bluebirds have been using them for a long period of time. So there are lots of birds now.”
Phyllis Greene, who took over the project from Chuck: “The important thing is for the birds to have an opportunity to have a nest, to get out of the weather and survive. We want to make sure they have a chance. Originally they were almost extinct in lots of places throughout the US, not only here. Anytime we can help wildlife sustain itself and still be independent is a great idea.”
Jon Mobeck, Executive Director of JHWF says the project fits the mission of the organization. “This is a visible way to demonstrate how to mitigate our impacts of development on wildlife. It is a perfect example of the community coming together and helping out this beautiful species. It combines science and the celebration of wildlife.” And more personally, Jon had no experience with birds prior to taking on 12 boxes with the JHWF staff. He is becoming a bird watcher. “Now I have a whole new way of observing the environment. It has been eye opening and ear opening. A tremendous gift.”
Tim Griffith, our new project coordinator, has been engaged with Eastern Bluebird trails for years in Indiana before moving here a year ago: “This is the largest registered Mountain Bluebird Trail in the continental U.S. Mountain Bluebirds are crashing throughout the region. With 13 years of data, we can know more about the population and be responsive to changes in trends upward instead of downward. The more we know about this iconic western species the more we can save and increase their populations here and elsewhere.”
Natalie Fath, Volunteer Coordinator and Visitor Services Manager for the National Elk Refuge: “The ongoing collaboration with the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation on the Mountain Bluebird Nestbox Trail Project is essential to ensuring that monitoring, box maintenance, and reporting occurs. The NER is not only supportive of the collaboration, but also depends entirely on volunteer citizen scientists to give this project life due to Refuge full-time staffing limitations. Without volunteers, this project would not exist.”
Next year, Tim plans to start banding birds to see how many return, and to which boxes. Eagle Scouts are ready to repair and build more boxes to place at other areas in the Refuge. Also, we will digitize the years of data for submission into our Nature Mapping database and Cornell’s national NestWatch system.
Jon Mobeck sums it up, “The Nature Mapping Bluebird Nestbox Project is a great way to introduce citizen science to the community. It is a visible and fun project. We welcome new volunteers!”
We thank the ongoing core project volunteers who are still in the valley:
Chuck Schneebeck, Ed Henze, Bert Raynes, Paul Anthony, Phyllis and Joe Greene, Loretta Scott, Larry Kummer, Julianne O’Donoghue, Gretchen Plender, Shelly Sundgren and Dave Lucas; Jon Mobeck, Kate Gersh, Christine Mychajliw, Tim Griffith.
Additional thanks to Jackson Lumber, which often donates cedar wood for the boxes.
Contact Tim Griffith to help out: Timgrif396@gmail.com.
- Cornell Ornithology Lab information of Mountain Bluebird Biology
- Cornell’s Citizen Science NestWatch project
- The Bluebird Monitor’s Guide to Bluebirds and other Small Cavity-Nesters
- Cornell Bird Library Guide, Cynthia Berger, Keith Kridler, and Jack Griggs