While out on the Prairie bluebird trail one day this past summer I went to check on a nestbox and noticed that it had the words, “Bluebirds are Happiness” inscribed just below the hole. The words were just barely discernable, it was clear that this nestbox had been around for a long time. I asked Al about the box and it’s inscription, and he explained that this was one of the original boxes put up when the Prairie bluebird trail got started in 1979. A small group of folks from the Golden Eagle Audubon Society (Al included) made a trip up to Prairie that year and put up a handful of boxes. At the time Al had no intention of adopting this bluebird trail and becoming it’s steward. He had set up the first boxes on his Owyhee bluebird trail the previous year and he had yet to retire from his full-time job at the saw mill so he was pretty busy. Of course within a couple of years Al had taken over the responsibility for managing and maintaining this trail, and actually began a dramatic expansion, increasing the number of nestboxes to well over 100.
Over the years the “Bluebirds are Happiness” box was moved at least once. Al explained to me that day out on the Prairie trail how he had selected this most recent location. The box was attached to a small pine tree, no taller than 10 or 12 feet, which stood in the middle of a large open field. This small tree provides a perfect perch from which the bluebirds can hunt for insects in the surrounding field. This past season however, the box was occupied not by bluebirds, but by a local pair of house wrens, as you can see from the photo. House Wrens build their twiggy nest structure all the way up to the opening of a cavity or nestbox as a way of restricting predators and larger cavity nesting species from gaining access to their nest. Al isn’t bothered by the presence of the House Wrens however, all native cavity nesting species are welcome to use his boxes.
A few months later fellow Bluebird Man producer Neil Paprocki and I were at Al’s cabin going through some old photos when we came across a picture which was labeled on the back, “Levi Mohler, Al Larson and Jill Wyatt with bluebird houses to be put up near Smith’s Prairie, April 1979”. This photo had been taken just before the first nestboxes were put up in Prairie! Even more exciting for me was the inscription that was visible on one of the two boxes being held up by Jill Wyatt which very clearly read, “Bluebirds are Happiness”!
Towards the end of this past summer the town of Prairie and the surrounding area were threatened by a large wildfire, and we were forced to cancel our final trip out to the Prairie bluebird trail with Al. Luckily by this time there were no active nests in the area, the purpose of our planned trip was just to clean out the last of the nestboxes to get them ready for the spring. Firefighters were able to prevent the fire from coming through the town of Prairie, but much of the surrounding area burned. Al made a trip out to Prairie on his own in early September and forwarded some photos along to Neil and I. He lost more than 30 nestboxes to the fire, less than one third of the total for the Prairie trail. Sadly, one of the photos that Al sent our way looked an awful lot like the “Bluebirds are Happiness” box, burnt to a crisp.
In October we returned to the Prairie bluebird trail with Al to get a look at the damage. The folks at the Golden Eagle Audubon Society had already secured a donation of replacement nestboxes from Wild Birds Unlimited of Boise, and we were able to replace the “Bluebirds are Happiness” box with a brand new one. Although it was sad to lose such an interesting piece of history, it was wonderful to see how quickly the birding community responded to the loss of these nestboxes.
I think it is safe to say that the future of the Prairie bluebird trail remains bright. Bluebirds are well adapted to wildfires, and actually stand to benefit from the effects that this fire has had on the local habitat. Bluebirds need open areas to effectively hunt for insects, and they need cavities to nest in and raise their chicks. Wildfires provide both of these requirements, which is why bluebirds are often one of the first species to return to recently burned areas. Over the next few years the fire-ravaged areas around Prairie will become prime bluebird habitat.
Tags: bluebird, bluebird man, citizen science, conservation, Idaho, mountain bluebird, nestbox, prairie, western bluebird, wildlife