This past Friday I accompanied Bluebird Man Al Larson on a monitoring trip to his Owyhee Bluebird Trail. The Owyhee Mountains are spectacular and remote despite their ease of access from Boise, and I was looking for an excuse to escape my home office and get out in the field with Al! Al warned me before the trip that it could be a long day, since his best guess according to his records was that we’d have close to 100 nestling bluebirds at the right age for banding.


Bluebird parents taking care of their family.

For those readers who haven’t yet seen the film, Bluebird Man (click to watch!) – Al places a uniquely numbered federal aluminum leg band on each and every bluebird chick before it fledges. This allows him to track the dispersal of these birds when they return from migration and set up breeding territories of their own. There is a relatively small window of time during which these nestling birds can be banded however. If the chick is less than 8 days old, their legs aren’t quite large enough to hold the band – it would easily slip off and get lost. If the chicks are more than 15 or 16 days old a disturbance in the nest could cause them to fledge prematurely, making them an easy target for predation.

A bluebird nestling receives its leg band.

A bluebird nestling receives its leg band.

Al projects the approximate ages of the chicks based on the timing of egg laying documented earlier in the season. He then times his monitoring trips to his bluebird trails based around this age window for banding nestlings. Usually it isn’t until the second week in June when Al starts to have close to 100 nestlings that need to be banded in a single trip, but as I mentioned in my late April post, this year is a bit different.

Al and I started checking nestboxes at around 9:30 in the morning after the hour and a half drive out to the Owyhees, and we banded our last batch of nestlings at 8:30 in the evening. That’s eleven straight hours of work on the bluebird trail! Our total number of banded nestling bluebirds at the end of the day was 118 – easily a record for this time of year.

A brilliant blue male looks on as we band his babies.

A brilliant blue male looks on as his babies receive their leg bands.

Once we had finished up work on the bluebird trail we began the long drive back to Boise. Although this may seem like a long work day for a couple of volunteers (one of whom is 92 years old!), in the past Al has been known to band nestlings by the headlights of his pickup truck! He explained to me on the drive home that there’s nothing he loves more than the satisfaction of a job well done, and it’s clear that he’s willing to make sacrifices to achieve this. It was 10:30pm when we arrived in Boise, and Al still had a 45-minute drive to get to his home up on Daggett Creek.

While some may look at Al and wonder why he has sacrificed so much to help out this relatively small population of bluebirds, Al has made it clear that he’s not doing it for the birds. He’s doing if for himself. Monitoring these bluebird boxes is something that he loves to do – he’s stuck with it for 35 years and he’s going to keep at it for as long as his body allows him.

Al hard at work banding bluebirds.

Al hard at work banding bluebirds.

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