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Following the bluebird trail

Murray Schlueter carefully lifts the door of a bluebird box and peers in. Last week there were four pale blue eggs in the box; this week there are three just-hatched nestlings, eyes still closed. After a quick look, Schlueter closes up the box to placate the protesting parents that are scolding overhead.

Schlueter has been interested in bluebirds since he was 10 or 11 years old, growing up on a farm outside Linwood. He walked to school, cutting across the fields, and he knew where bluebirds nested in some old apple trees along the way.

Murray Schlueter and granddaughter Julia Pilecki peer into one of 50 bluebird boxes Schlueter maintains. This particular box yielded a family of tree swallows, which also like to nest in the boxes.
Murray Schlueter and granddaughter Julia Pilecki peer into one of 50 bluebird boxes Schlueter maintains. This particular box yielded a family of tree swallows, which also like to nest in the boxes.

“I think the early pioneers watched for bluebirds; they were the true sign of the return of spring,” he said.

Those harbingers of spring were more common in pioneer times than when Schlueter watched them on his way to school. Bluebird populations declined in the mid-20th century due to a number of factors. The open spaces they favoured for nesting disappeared as land was reforested or swallowed up by development. Pesticides like DDT killed off insects that make up the bulk of the bluebird’s diet, and more aggressive birds like house sparrows and European starlings – both introduced species – competed for nesting space.

After several harsh winters in the late 1970s reduced numbers even further, bluebirds were declared rare in Ontario. It was through the efforts of volunteer conservationists who built nest boxes and established “trails” of monitored bluebird houses that the species rebounded, to the point that bluebirds were removed from the list in 1996.

Schlueter has been one of those conservationists for nearly 40 years. He built his first bluebird box back in elementary school but got more serious about it in 1973, when he started beekeeping and put boxes around his bee yard.

Schlueter gave up his beehives in 1986 – his job in marketing at Erb Transport had grown and he didn’t have time for beekeeping anymore – but he kept up his bluebird trail.

Now semi-retired, he has 25 pairs of boxes in the countryside around Wellesley Village. The boxes go up in pairs because tree swallows also like to nest in them; they’ll take one box and leave the other for bluebirds. Wrens and house sparrows aren’t such good neighbours; wrens will fill the second box with sticks to keep other birds out, and house sparrows will kill bluebirds and destroy their eggs.

There’s more to a bluebird trail than just putting up boxes, Schlueter said, with all the competition and predators the little songbirds face. Nest boxes have to be monitored and cleaned out after each hatching. If Schlueter finds blowflies in the nest – the larva feed on the blood of nestlings – he will build a new nest by hand.

Schlueter’s lifelong interest in nature and the environment extends beyond bluebirds. When he and his wife Beth owned a farm near Amulree, they revitalized a wetland on the property and put up nesting boxes for wood ducks. They also managed a woodlot on the property, and Schlueter is still a member of the Huron-Perth Woodlot Association.

It’s for efforts like these that Schlueter is being recognized by the Grand River Conservation Authority with a 2009 watershed award.

“I never felt that I was doing anything that would deserve recognition,” he said of the award. “I do it because I love it.”

Retired from Erb Transport, Schlueter works part-time selling agricultural seeds for the General Seed Company. He enjoys the connection with local farmers, who allow him to put bluebird boxes on their property or hike through their woodlots.

The Schlueters built a house in Wellesley Village a few years ago and left as many trees on the property as they could. With the addition of flowers and feeders, their backyard is a haven for birds. In the span of an hour one morning, a rose-breasted grosbeak, tree sparrow and goldfinch visit the feeder and a cardinal and mourning dove are audible in the trees.

He enjoys watching all the feathered visitors at his doorstep, but the bluebird is still Schlueter’s favourite. Back in 1994, when he and Beth were thinking about buying the farm, Schlueter drove by on his lunch break to look the place over once more. It was early April, and sitting on a snowbank was a bluebird – the first bluebird of spring. The Schlueters bought the farm and named it Bluebird Meadow Farm.

“I guess I’m like those early pioneers,” Schlueter said. “When spring comes, I really yearn to see that first bluebird.”

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