2012-08-16 / Family

A Helping Hand For Central Pa. Bluebirds

By Ad Crable

(LANCASTER) INTELLIGENCER

JOURNAL/LANCASTER NEW ERA

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) – Dean Rust lives next to the Lancaster Country Club. But he doesn’t play golf.

Probably because the retired dentist is too busy monitoring almost daily some 308 bluebird boxes he’s strung out in 15 locations in Lancaster, York and Chester counties.

Bouncing along in a golf cart on LCC’s 400 acres of former farmland last week, the Manheim Township resident searched for words to explain his passion for the blue-cloaked birds in blue.

And why he monitors these “bluebird trails” from early spring through the summer, tapping on the boxes he’s made himself and erected, counting the eggs and brood, protecting the birds from snakes, parasitic wasps, raccoons, English house sparrows and others that would do the peaceful birds harm.

“It’s just their adoring temperament,” he begins. “You watch them raise their family and they’re mesmerizing. They’re very docile.

This man, who can become almost misty-eyed in his love for bluebirds, never saw his first one until about 10 years ago, when he was 55.

He was visiting a friend in South Carolina, walking in a park. It was February and a flash of blue streaked by. “That’s a bluebird!” his friend said.

Rust was smitten and wanted to see these birds “that carries the sky on his back,” as Henry David Thoreau wrote, around his own home.

He knew that populations of bluebirds, a species unique to North America, had suffered as much as a 90-percent decline in the 1960s and 1970s from pesticides, introductions of English house sparrows, loss of natural cavities, shrinking open space and other threats.

He started by cobbling together specifically- designed boxes and placing them in his backyard. Soon, he was handing others out as Mother’s Day gifts to friends and family members.

Rust wanted to check on the success of the strung-out boxes, but he felt guilty just showing up and tromping through backyards.

He wanted a formal bluebird trail that he could monitor thoroughly and check on the birds as they go through as many as three clutches of young.

Rust was an umpire at a field hockey training center in Chester County. He asked if he could put up bluebirds boxes there. Sure, came the reply and a dozen boxes he put up there was his first trail seven years ago.

He talked to a deacon at Calvary Church on Landis Valley Road about setting up a bluebird trail there. Twenty six more boxes followed.

He placed an ad in the newsletter of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania, offering to set up bluebird trails. A Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks superintendent phoned and soon Rust had trails in place at Sam S. Lewis State Park in York County and Susquehannock State Park in Lancaster County’s southern end.

Other requests followed and it snowballed from there.

He has bluebird trails in Lancaster County Central Park and various parks in three townships. His customized boxes fitted with various predator controls may be found on the grounds of the Landis Valley Museum.

He checks on most of the 308 boxes at 15 far-flung locations once a week during the breeding season. His trails range from six to 40 boxes.

Rust’s work has not gone unnoticed. He’s been appointed the Lancaster County coordinator of bluebird trails by the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania, on which he also is a board member. He’s also a member of the North American Bluebird Society.

True monitoring, he points out, is not just tapping the box to flush the female bluebird and peeking in to count eggs or brood.

It’s about checking boxes for pests such as ants and earwigs, predators and water leaks that can render a box unusable. It’s about removing a nest once it’s been used or another pair of bluebirds won’t use the box for a new nest.

“Don’t let nature take its course,” says Rust.

As for tree swallows that sometimes nest in bluebird boxes, Rust lets the interlopers alone. “They’re good neighbors,” he says.

Not so murderous English house sparrows. Like most who put up bluebird boxes to help the species, Rust traps and kills the nonnative birds.

Too often, Rust says, an Eagle Scout or park will put up a bluebird trail, then walk away, allowing it to fall into disuse or into the claws of other birds or predators.

Having a bluebird trail without necessary monitoring is like driving a fine car around town without insurance.

The Lancaster Country Club, which has been on a mission to make its grounds more environmentally sound – in 2011 the club received the coveted Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary certification from the National Audubon Society – admits to that.

The club erected a bluebird trail with 24 boxes in 2005. It put up the boxes in the spring, took them down in the fall and hadn’t a clue what went on in between.

“Dean came in and saved us,” says Mike Yelenosky, the country club’s superintendent of grounds.

Rust added some boxes in key places, rearranged the locations of some existing ones, repaired leaking boxes, added predator guards at box entrances and evicted invading birds.

His influence was immediate. The first year under his tutelage, 40 bluebirds were successfully fledged from 30 boxes. With Rust playing mother hen, the total rose to 80 in 2011.

With a third round of nestings just beginning, Rust predicts 120 to 130 bluebirds will be brought into this world this year from 16 pairs that call the LCC home.

With its combination of wind-sheltering slopes, ample insects, grasses, open space and wood buffers, Rust calls the LCC his crown jewel of bluebird trails.

“This is bluebird heaven,” he gushes.

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