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One man's passion for bluebirds proves contagious

Arlington girl scout Cassidy Greenwalt created a bluebird trail in Bonaire Park.
Arlington girl scout Cassidy Greenwalt created a bluebird trail in Bonaire Park.

Clark Walter’s workship is filled with tools, cedar and screws for a production marathon that began 11 years ago. To achieve the status of master naturalist, he was required to complete a volunteer project, so he proposed installing bluebird houses in his neighborhood.

“They said, ‘That’s fine, but we need boxes’" he recalls. "I said, ‘I’ll build them.’ And they said, ‘You have to build them in the Virginia Bluebird Society approved and recommended design,’ and I said, ’Sure,’ and I started building them. Word spread, and one year it was up to 700.”

That’s right. This guy built 700 bluebird boxes and sold them for the price of materials – about twenty bucks -- to anyone who asked.

Since 2012, he’s produced 4,000 bluebird boxes and established a trail that runs through his Albemarle County neighborhood providing spots for 25 eastern bluebird nests.

“They were nearly driven to extinction in the 1850’s with the introduction of the two most populous species of birds in North America – starlings and house sparrows,” Walter explains.

Bluebirds are shy – unable to withstand the aggressive behavior of those other birds, but by putting up special houses, people were able to protect bluebirds and their progeny. Each year, Walter reported to his neighbors on their progress.

“This year, for the third consecutive year, we fledged over 100 chicks, and this year we set an all-time record with 156 chicks.”

After a few years of production, his sweetheart insisted he scale back, so this year he produced just 300 boxes!

“Because Sweet Pea thinks that’s better for all of our mental health,” he says with a smile.

Left to right: Cassidy's mom, Colleen Holland, Clark Walter, Cassidy and her dad.
Left to right: Cassidy's mom, Colleen Holland, Clark Walter, Cassidy and her dad.

And he had help. A student from Yorktown High School in Arlington needed five boxes to complete a project that could win her the Girl Scout Gold.

“How can you say no to that?” Walter wonders aloud.

Cassidy Greenwalt came down with her parents to pick-up the boxes, getting to know Clark and his partner Connie Friend.

“They’re just a lovely couple. I have so much fun around them,” she says.

And this year they were back to help make more boxes. Cassidy’s dad, who enjoys woodwork himself, was extremely proud.

“I’ve cut many a finger, and to watch my daughter operate a radial arm saw and a drill press, I think it’s fantastic.”

Her mother – Colleen Holland – works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so she was not surprised by her daughter’s project. It seems protecting wildlife runs in the family.

“My grandfather, my husband’s grandfather, my father, his father were all raised in the Fish and Wildlife Service, so conservation is in our blood.”

Back in Arlington, Cassidy made arrangements to install bluebird boxes in Bonaire Park.

“I reached out to the Arlington Parks and Rec director, and he absolutely loved the idea,” Cassidy recalls.

And she’s lined-up volunteers who are tracking nests and hatchlings -- sending information to the Bluebird Society of Virginia. She won the Girl Scout’s Gold Award with her family and Clark Walter cheering her on.

“Our Girl Scout Camping motto is ‘Leave it better than you found it,’ and with these bird boxes you really do leave it better than you found It’s just hopefully helping the birds.”

Here in Virginia and across their range, bluebird populations are growing. The National Park Service says their recovery was due to the establishment of nest boxes by private landowners like Clark Walter. I’m Sandy Hausman.

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Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief