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Building a better birdhouse

by Dave Yanko

Ron Bittner's goal in life is to design the best bluebird birdhouse in the world.

Ron Bittner
Ron Bittner on his bluebird trail, with one of his nestboxes.

Now, achieving best-in-the-world status at anything is not usually easy. But those who know Ron would have to think he's equipped to take a good run at his objective.

An engineer who took early retirement from an oil patch job before moving back home to Abernethy in the 1980s, Ron is a smart guy with an interest in his subject that dates back to 1945.

That's when he built his first bluebird birdhouse as a youngster growing up on the farm. Mountain bluebirds occupied the birdhouse year after year.

Ron is also a bachelor. He has plenty of time to devote to his task. And to get right down to it, what kind of competition could there possibly be to build a better birdhouse for bluebirds?

"It's gotten to the point now where it's something like the OlympicGames," Ron said during an interview at his town bungalow.

"It's a very competitive thing," says Myrna Pearman, a biologist and director of Ellis Bird Farm in Lacombe, Alberta. "It's just incredible."

The mountain bluebird
- courtesy Myrna Pearman
The mountain bluebird.

Ellis is both a working farm and a non-profit company with a mandate to encourage the propagation of mountain bluebirds. Pearman, who also chairs the technical committee of the North American Bluebird Society, said in phone interview Ellis has "more than 150 different styles of bird boxes that have been sent to us from throughout North America. And every box is a better box than everybody else's."

The intense design competition that Ron is a part of grew out of a quiet, but hugely successful effort by ordinary North Americans to save the bluebird.

In 1850, House Sparrows indigenous to Eurasia and North Africa were introduced to New York in an ill-conceived effort to control insects damaging crops. The native eastern bluebird was unable to compete with the aggressive House Sparrow, which will nest just about anywhere including in old tree cavities preferred by bluebirds.

Introduction some years later of the cavity-dwelling European Starling only increased pressure on the eastern bluebird, whose numbers are thought to have dropped by 90 per cent. Pearman says the sparrows and starlings reached the Canadian prairies in the 1940s. The western (coastal) and mountain bluebird species were not as severely affected as their eastern cousin, which also ranges into parts of Saskatchewan.

Since human habitation attracts House Sparrows and starlings, bluebirds steer well clear of cities, towns, even farmyards. In fact, it's estimated 95 per cent of us have never seen one. The big push to save them came with the establishment in 1978 of the North American Bluebird Society, which urged people to build or purchase "nestboxes" for bluebirds.

"Unlike grizzly bears or peregrine falcons or panda bears," says Pearman, "the ordinary person can do something to help bluebirds. They can build bird boxes."

It was in 1984 that Ron decided to rekindle his interest in bluebirds by establishing a bluebird trail, a series of birdhouses attached to fence posts 300 to 400 metres (yards) apart. He made arrangements with local landowners to set up his trail south of town.

One of the first major innovations on the nestbox front came when it was discovered that placing two boxes in close proximity gave bluebirds better odds in the competition for nestboxes.

"The theory is that two swallows (in Ron's area) will not nest close together," Ron explains. "So one box in each pair is available to the bluebirds."

Ron began using the paired-box system in 1988. At each pairing, or site, he set up two identical boxes 10 metres apart. The sites were situated 400 metres from each other to insure nesting birds would not infringe upon the territory of neighboring birds of the same species.

What Ron found, however, was that bluebirds occupied only about half of his sites, or one quarter of his nestboxes. That 25-per-cent occupancy rate was a big improvement over the 10-per-cent rate commonly achieved by people using the single-box method, but it wasn't good enough for a guy who likes a challenge.

Ron had an idea. Instead of using two boxes of the same design at each site, he felt he could improve his occupancy rates by pairing one box that's particularly attractive to bluebirds but not to swallows, with a second box that swallows appreciate and bluebirds don't care for.

He recalled during his days on the farm seeing bluebirds flying up into nesting areas under the eaves of buildings. They seemed to like flying upwards into nesting areas. He also remembered they did not mind nesting in open, shelf-like areas of buildings.

This "up-ness" and "open-ness" became the main design considerations in 17 experimental nestboxes Ron designed and built in the following years. The best aspects of those prototypes are found in Ron's current bluebird nestbox (two models) and his tree swallow box. The bluebird box features side openings "under the eaves", while the swallow box uses a hole in the front of the box.

From 1991 to 2001, Ron recorded an average occupancy rate of 41 per cent in his experimental bluebird nestbox. That compares to a 10-per-cent rate he observed using conventional bluebird boxes over the same period. In other words, Ron's data indicate his bluebird birdhouse is four times more effective than standard bluebird birdhouses at attracting bluebirds.

Unfortunately, no one seems able to replicate those findings.

Bill Anaka is a respected bluebirder from the Canora region of east-central Saskatchewan who first got in touch with Ron when raccoons began raiding his nestboxes. Anaka had heard about the innovative predator proofing Ron incorporated into his designs after experiencing similar problems. Sure enough, once Anaka began using Ron's boxes, the problem disappeared.

The Peterson box
The Peterson box.

He decided to start testing Ron's boxes to see whether they attracted bluebirds better than standard ones. They did. Anaka says Ron's boxes even performed better than the Peterson box, the king of bluebird nestboxes in North America. There's sadness in Anaka's voice, however, when he reports the Shantz box, another U.S. entry, performed better than Ron's.

"Just a shade," said Anaka, almost apologetically.

Pearman experiments with Ron's boxes, too.

"What we have found is we don't have as high an occupancy of bluebirds as (Ron) does. They don't seem to prefer (Ron's boxes) to the extent they do in his area."

Ron, meanwhile, simply wishes more people would give his nestboxes a try. He has sent plans to more than 50 people in the United States and Canada, and the few that got back to him reported good results. But he says his plans are "a little bit radical."

Ideal habitat
Pastureland, a few trees some distance away and no people equals ideal habitat for the mountain bluebird.

"I have a feeling that some people probably look at them and say 'Oh, he's crazy', or 'This is just too hard to build'," says Ron. "And they just file them away in a drawer."

Pearman thinks that if more people were to try Ron's box, it may well prove to be the best in the world at attracting bluebirds. In fact, in her soon-to-be-published guide for monitoring mountain bluebirds, she promotes Ron's box as an excellent design option for bluebirders with raccoon problems. It just might be the break Ron needs.

"We might find that mountain bluebirds will end up preferring (Ron's box), over the long run."

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