Taking flight

Taking flight

Williamsport Sun-Gazette | October 4, 2015


Sun-Gazette Correspondent

Although the sight of a brightly-colored bluebird is common to us nowadays, there was once a time when this feathery species seemed to be on the path to extinction.

Between the years of 1920 and 1970, the Eastern Bluebird population experienced a serious decline, mostly due to competition with other cavity-nesting birds, like house sparrows.

In 1978, the North American Bluebird society was founded, and its members began establishing bluebird trails, marked by nesting boxes that provided a safe place for bluebirds to reproduce. Since then, the population has recovered tremendously, mostly due to these efforts. 

Donald Eister, a resident of the Williamsport Home retirement community, has managed to restore a considerable number of bluebirds in this area during the ten years since he started his bluebird trail project with other residents.

Eister, a retired pediatrician, began the bluebird trail soon after he moved into the Williamsport Home. 

“When I arrived, I thought it was a great place for bluebirds because of the lawn and scattered trees–that’s what you need,” he said.

He explained that bluebirds become very territorial during their nesting season, staking out an area around their nests to protect, so a bluebird trail requires at least a few acres of land to give the birds enough space. 

Eister first proposed his idea for the trail to the Williamsport Home’s manager, who thought it sounded interesting and encouraged him to pitch his idea to the director.

After some persuasion, his plan was approved, and the residents obtained nesting box kits from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, installing the first 16 boxes in April 2005. 

At the Williamsport Home, five types of birds typically occupy the nest boxes: bluebirds, tree swallows, chickadees, house wrens and house sparrows, which all build distinctive nests.

While Eister’s goal is to fledge bluebirds, he also keeps an eye on the other birds that nest in the boxes, especially since house wrens and house sparrows have a tendency to destroy bluebird nests.

“They are mischievous and aggressive–they’re the biggest challenge,” he said.

The boxes are monitored on a weekly basis, with residents recording the types of nests, how many eggs are laid, and how many eggs hatch. Each week, Eister generates a report of these data on his computer, and sends it out to the administrator and 20 or so others who follow the bluebird trail.

Over a ten year period, the residents have fledged over 350 bluebirds.

“It’s been very successful,” Eister said. “We were successful in increasing the bluebird population, and we also created a group project for the home. 

He said that the project has stimulated a lot of interest and conversation among the residents over the years. The group of people who help out has varied, as many residents are interested but unable to participate due to health- or age-related issues.

“Just to be able to witness this cycle of life–to see the birds mate, build a nest, lay eggs, incubate the eggs, to see the eggs hatch and the little ones come out–that’s exciting,” Eister said. “I think everyone really likes to see that.”

At present, there is a group of about six residents who regularly monitor the boxes. At age 94, Eister has some difficulty with mobility, so these others collect the data and report it to him.

While watching the nesting boxes over the years, the residents have witnessed some interesting events. 

In one instance, an occupied nesting box was removed by a construction crew to cut down a large tree. The crew, unaware of the bluebird trail, pulled the box out of the ground and leaned it against a gazebo

In spite of the noise, activity and relocation, the female bird continued to enter the box and incubate her eggs, and in the end, all five eggs successfully hatched.

Another time, the residents observed a nest that had been built in layers by three different birds. On the bottom, chickadees had laid a thin layer of moss, and house wrens laid twigs on top of it. The top layer was finished by bluebirds, who used it to nest.

Eister said that he enjoys being the bluebird trail coordinator, but he is more than willing to step down from the position if someone else became more interested and had the computer skills to generate the weekly reports.

He believes that the bluebird trail will endure for many years to come, since so many residents are interested and happy to participate in the maintenance of the nest boxes.

“That’s one of the biggest assets here, the people who live here. There are a lot of mighty fine people.” Eister said. “I think that someone is always going to keep up the bluebird trail.”

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