Written by Sarah Preston, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Summertime is a quiet time here on campus with many of the students and faculty away for summer break, but it’s also a time bursting with new life, bird life. June and July have produced many Mallard ducklings dabbling in Lake Elissa and a family of Killdeer chicks running around on their too-long legs. Multiple broods of Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds have hatched and fledged from the nest boxes placed all over campus last year by the Ornithology class.
It all began when my chemistry colleague, Mary Kay Deley, and I decided to take Glenn Hanniford’s Ornithology course for fun in spring 2014. Mary Kay has her own bluebird nest boxes in her yard and has been a volunteer bluebird trail monitor for the Holden Arboretum. She recognized Ursuline’s campus, with its expanses of short grass bordered by wooded areas, as perfect Eastern Bluebird habitat and suggested that we create our own bluebird trail.
The project became a collaboration between the biology department, chemistry department, and facilities and maintenance. One of the lab periods was used to build the nest boxes. Wally Bursic, from maintenance, cut the wood, provided the power tools, and assisted with assembly. Each of the 18 students in the course had the opportunity to build her own bluebird nest box and we proudly put our names on them.
We placed 14 nest boxes in pairs around the campus and eagerly waited to see who would move into them. After the students leave for the summer, the boxes are monitored by Ursuline faculty and staff volunteers who remove the nests of the non-native, invasive House Sparrows to keep their population in check and record species, number of eggs and young, and approximate age of the young for each nest box.
It’s exciting to monitor the nest boxes because you never know what you’re going to find when you open the box. Sometimes it’s empty. Occasionally a messy House Sparrow nest needs to be removed. Often it contains the Tree Swallow eggs or young and the parents will protect the nest, swooping down on the monitor causing her to don the ridiculous umbrella hat. A few nest boxes contain the stick nests of House Wrens, which for some reason include hairy, black spiders, which have been known to make a monitor (who shall remain nameless) scream. Every now and then we open a box and find what we’ve been hoping for, the pale blue eggs of the Eastern Bluebird in a neat nest of pine needles, and we rejoice.
Although most of our nest boxes have been occupied by other beneficial species, we have had moderate success attracting Eastern Bluebirds to our boxes. Last year one nest box, #9, successfully produced 4 Eastern Bluebird fledglings. This summer that same box had another brood of four, most likely produced by the same pair of bluebirds since they are known to return year after year to the same nesting site. With the donation of additional boxes this year, we placed six more boxes in three new locations. It was one of these new boxes that housed a second bluebird family this year; they fledged three chicks within the past two weeks and just laid two more eggs, which, if they successfully hatch and fledge, will bring our Eastern Bluebird fledgling total up to nine for 2015.