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Albemarle Man Celebrates Bluebirds and Chickadees

Clark Walter makes and sells hundreds of bluebird houses at cost.
Clark Walter makes and sells hundreds of bluebird houses at cost.

It’s October, at that means Clark Walter is back in his wood workshop, surrounded by stacks of red cedar, preparing to build nesting boxes for native Eastern bluebirds. Historically, they’ve raised their young in tree cavities, but as forests were cut down, the bluebirds found themselves competing with more aggressive species.

“A blue bird doesn’t stand a chance against a house sparrow or a starling," he explains. "They were being decimated.”

Enter Carl Little – a man who designed bluebird boxes to replace those lost cavities. Clark Walter thought he lived in Virginia back in Jefferson’s time.

“I thought he had probably been a person who invented these houses years ago and tramped around in the woods with Meriwether Lewis, who lived not far from here,” Walter recalls.

But then the guy rang his doorbell.

“He introduced himself as Carl Little, and I said, ‘You can’t be! You’re dead!’”

He was, in fact, very much alive and interested in Clark Walter’s hobby – making boxes and giving them away for the cost of materials. This year he’ll make 350 of them.

“One year it went to almost 700. It was a full-time non-profit enterprise for me. It involved close to $25,000 in materials, and it was a small business, so we just decided to limit it to 350 boxes, and I pretty much devote the month of October to cutting all the pieces and getting them all ready,” Walter says.

He’s inspired by last summer’s experience – with 23 boxes in his neighborhood, bluebird parents hatched two or three broods apiece, fledgeing a record 121 babies.

He also heard from a friend who had several old bluebird boxes in her garage, so he brought those home for repairs, headed out to his garden, and returned a short time later.

“There was a tiny baby bird that I would estimate was about a day old on my work bench!" he recalls. "It had rolled out of one of the holes, so now I don’t know which box it’s come from. I’m frantically getting into all three boxes. I got into the one that had a nest in it, and there were four more babies.”

Walter did not think they were bluebirds. He suspected they were Carolina chickadees, and a pair of those birds had been building a nest in one of his bluebird boxes.

“I introduced those five babies into the chickadee nest," says Walter. "The parents went absolutely crazy for a day. It was like, ‘How did these babies just suddenly appear?’ They were getting ready for babies, and now they’re suddenly here, and also the bluebirds were all astir, and so bluebirds and chickadees were in and out of that nest box all day.”

Walter and his partner Connie Friend put water and food outside the house, the bluebirds decided to back off, and the Carolina chickadees took over, allowing Walter to photograph the nest like a proud grandpa.

“These are the five babies, just before they fledged," he says, showing a picture of the black and white babies. "Aren’t they cute? And you can see there’s no room for the parents at this point. There are five of them all bunched in."

He shared the news with an e-mailing list of concerned neighbors and friends – a list that has grown to about a hundred – and received dozens of e-mails congratulating him and the birds for a summer well spent.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief