Originally created 02/21/99

City official encourages others to build homes for bluebirds



TEGA CAY, S.C. -- If Mike Horan gets his wish, the flash and swoop of a bright blue wing will become a familiar sight in Tega Cay.

Mr. Horan, a city councilman, is building a bluebird trail in the lakeside city, and he is looking for volunteers to help.

He taught a free class recently on how to build and monitor bluebird houses.

It's not as simple as you might think, but Mr. Horan's enthusiasm spread to the audience of about 20 people.

Bluebirds aren't an endangered species, but they are experiencing a housing crisis.

They build their nests in small cavities in old trees or wooden fences.

But many old trees are disappearing, and metal is quickly replacing wooden fences.

In addition, aggressive European starlings and house sparrows often usurp bluebirds' nests, andharsh winters have crippled the bluebird population.

Bird aficionados remember with a shudder the cold snap of 1958, when the frozen bodies of bluebirds littered the ground throughout South Carolina. An estimated one-third to one-half of the eastern bluebird population died.

But tough times are turning around for bluebirds, thanks to nest-builders like Mr. Horan.

He hopes to put up about two dozen numbered boxes throughout the city. The wooden boxes are mounted on poles or stakes with a precise one-and-a-half-inch round opening.

Bluebirds start looking for nests in February and usually lay their first eggs in March. During the spring and summer, they will hatch two broods of about five chicks each.

"If I have 20 boxes, with five eggs times two broods each, that's 200 bluebirds in Tega Cay that weren't there before," Mr. Horan said. "They do tend to stick around, so ultimately you're getting a bunch of birds sticking around here."

Mr. Horan has been fascinated with birds, bats and bugs ever since he was a boy in Hendersonville, N.C. Volunteering with the Nature Conservancy, he met some wildlife biologists and started learning more about nature.

"The more you know about things, the more interesting you find them," he said. "If I could just share it with other people, it would be good."

At his birdhouse class, Mr. Horan taught the crowd how to cater to bluebirds' particular habits.

They like to nest in open spaces, so forest-clearing development can actually benefit them. They also love another ugly, modern invention -- the telephone wire. The vantage point is perfect for scouting insects.

Hosting bluebirds doesn't stop with building a nest.

Mr. Horan needs volunteers to help him check on the progress of the baby birds and maintain the nests on the bluebird trail. Sometimes you have to be ruthless. Throwing out the nests of competitor birds is encouraged.

Mr. Horan keeps track of how many eggs are laid, how many hatch and how many of the birds can fly.

He hopes to enter his bluebird trail in a Cornell University study that tracks different bird populations.

Mr. Horan made a bluebird believer out of Tega Cay resident Wendy Hall. A Girl Scout troop leader, Ms. Hall said she just found her troop's next project.

"We were inspired," she said. "The birds are threatened, and we really can make a difference. I'm excited."