Hundreds of people spend each spring and summer checking on baby birds in their neighborhood. They’re part of a national effort to bring back bluebirds after their population dropped 90%. You might expect those volunteers to retire in the fall, but one bird lover from Virginia is busier than ever.
200 years ago, eastern bluebirds were common in Virginia. Settlers would find their nests in the holes of trees, but the situation changed as farmers took down forests and non-native species arrived in America – cavity nesters that compete with bluebirds.
“One of them was house sparrows, and another is the starling, and those two species of birds are now the two most populous of all bird species in North America, ” says Clark Walter, a man who played professional basketball in Europe in his youth. He stands 6-foot-six but has great compassion for smaller creatures.
“Bluebirds are tiny little things, and they just weren’t winning the war against the starlings and the house sparrows,” he explains.
Now retired from the Cleveland Zoological Society, Walter knew it was possible to help bird populations recover.
“I’ve had some exposure with Andean condors into Venezuela or Trumpeter swans in the state of Ohio, but I didn’t know much about my own backyard,” Walter admits.
So he became a master naturalist and built a trail through his Albemarle County neighborhood, putting up specially designed boxes for bluebirds. He turned his garage into a cozy workshop with a wood stove and more than a dozen antiques, including a cabinet with 125 tiny drawers that supplied a 19th century pharmacy.
“They held different medicines, things like arsenic and turpentine and other sorts of things that we probably wouldn’t want to take today,” he muses
Now they’re filled with screws and nails he uses to build cedar bluebird boxes he sells for the cost of the materials. In his first year, he made 65 of them.
“The following year I was building a couple of hundred," Walter recalls. "The next year 400, and the next year 600, and a couple of years ago 700.”
Each comes with a pole and a baffle that protects the birds, their eggs and babies from predators.
“We love housecats, and we have one of them, but they take a heavy toll on the bird population, in the billions. Also, snakes, raccoons and bears.”
Actually, there’s no stopping the bears. Walters says they’ve destroyed five bluebird houses in the last three years in his neighborhood alone. Still, the birds are prolific, often raising two broods in a season and sometimes three or four.
“You clear out the old nest and that prompts the parents to build a new one," he explains. "It takes them a day or two, and then they lay another set of eggs and raise them until fledging.”
The bluebird population has grown more than two percent a year since the sixties, but Clark Walter plans to keep building boxes. He’ll finish this year’s batch at the end of November. Then it’s on to his next project -- a seasonal business called Captain Breck's Rum Cakes. Like the birds, he’s a productive guy. Next month, in the kitchen he shares with his sweetheart Connie Friend, he’ll bake, pack and ship a thousand cakes made with twenty cases of rum.