“A 5th grader wants to do what?”
That was my initial reaction when a partner with Larimer County Department of Natural Resources approached me to see if I’d be interested assisting this young citizen. Noah Spagnuolo, a 5th grader at McGraw Elementary, wanted to become civically active and start the Colorado Bluebird Project in and around Fort Collins.
What on earth would motivate a 5th grader to do that, you ask? Several years ago, Noah’s aunt nearly died from viral meningitis. Because Noah knows that bluebirds can eat mosquitoes, he wanted to help grow the bluebird (and other insect eating bird) populations here in Northern Colorado. He was already familiar with the Bluebird Project because his aunt Barbara runs the program for the town of Castle Rock. He had gone out with her numerous times, sharing their love of nature and especially of bluebirds.
Mountain and Western Bluebirds like to nest in holes excavated in old trees or wooden fence posts. These features are disappearing in the more populated and manicured Front Range and populations of bluebirds are declining in portions of their range. An intiative like the Bluebird Project is right up Bird Conservancy’s alley and we were happy to try to help Noah make it a reality.
Ready for takeoff
With a small grant from Larimer County’s Small Grants for Community Partnering program, we were able to kick-start the project in 2015. We put up 13 nest boxes along two trails at Horsetooth Mountain and Soderburg Open Spaces in Larimer County a little late in the season (mid-March) but we had bird activity right away! Throughout that first year those boxes fledged … TREE SWALLOWS!
Tree Swallows are also a species with population declines. Populations of this species are also limited by available nest sites. We are happy to report we are contributing to local Tree Swallow populations! In 2015, 13 boxes produced 27 fledglings.
Again in 2016, we received the small grant from Larimer County which provided enough capacity to fine-tune the placement of and add new nest boxes, train volunteers manage the platform for data entry, and enter the data at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nest Watch Program. We also expanded the program a bit to include a third trail in Red Feather, CO run by Soaring Eagle Ecology Center. At the end of the summer we reported 13 nesting attempts with at least 9 successful fledges (at least 49 fledglings) out of 17 boxes.
Volunteers help us soar
The growth of the project could not be done without the support of a lot of great volunteers for the program – many of whom are supporters of Noah’s project. Others, like Jeanie Sumrall-Ajero got involved for other reasons. She was looking for an activity that would get her out of the house on a regular basis and had the potential to be a learning experience. “The fact that I might help repopulate the bird populations in this area was an added bonus since I love the outdoors and am concerned about habitat destruction” Jeanie commented. The time and interest Jeanie has given has been a great compliment to the project.
Becoming a birder
Why does she do it? “I may be turning into an actual birder, which I definitely was not before I started volunteering! I love sitting and watching the boxes when the birds are busy building nests or talking to one another or feeding the young. So much activity! I didn’t realize it, but I became so accustomed to their chatter that I recognized their songs this year before I saw them. I’ve found that I can identify birds by their flight patterns and behavior on the ground. This was not something I studied in books—all it took was a little observation while I was out walking the trail last year to make it so much easier to identify birds this year.” The fantastic photos that Jeanie took during her observations, shared throughout this article, provide a window into the world of bluebirds.
The nest monitors haven’t been the only folks helping with the project. We have to give a big shout out to our long-time friend and partner, Kevin Corwin, who leads the Colorado Bluebird Project with the Audubon Society of Greater Denver. Kevin led our two volunteer trainings in Fort Collins and is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to bluebirds (or tree swallows).
We’ve gotten folks to get involved in other ways, too. Mountain Life Church Sunday schoolers in Fort Collins donated their time and materials to build more nest boxes. Thanks to another Larimer County small grant in 2017, we will install new bluebird trails in Larimer County in the coming year.