Birds of a blue-feather | Local News | – Danville Commercial News

DANVILLE — With 91 years of age just around the corner, James Smith still makes his rounds each spring and summer checking the many bluebird boxes on his property off Catlin-Homer Road — when he’s not busy running a tractor across his farmland.

Although enough foliage and natural habitats for the blue-feathered fowl can be hard to find in some parts of Vermilion County, Smith’s property serves as a registered Illinois Nature Preserve, set along the Salt Fork branch of the Vermilion River. His family farm was established in 1828.

Smith said bluebirds and tree swallows build their nests only in natural cavities — as opposed to birds such as house sparrows that can make home in most types of man-made structures.

Yet over the years, as prairie forests were cleared for farming and other developments, appropriate habitats have simply become harder to come by, and some area residents are concerned with preserving their population. Such is the goal of the Middlefork Audubon Society.

“Our forefathers brought starlings and house sparrows from Europe because they liked the birds from back home,” Smith said. Those species were dominant to their blue and green feathered counterparts, according to Smith, and competed for nesting spots.

Another blow bluebirds took was when telephone poles began to be treated with creosote as a preservative. Smith said it was later found to be toxic to wildlife. As more untreated fence posts in rural areas rotted away, matters were made worse.

In the 1960s, Smith started putting up his first bluebird nesting boxes, after meeting several members of the past Vermilion Audubon Society. Now, he maintains about 35 on his property in Vermilion County, with another set of 17 across the county line.

Over time, the farmer has picked up a few tricks of his own to keep critters from disturbing bluebirds nests. To keep squirrels or raccoons from climbing up — as raccoons are known for clawing at any eggs inside — Smith attached large, round PVC sewer pipes to the support poles under the boxes. Some of his other boxes use a tall PVC pole to hold the box up high by itself.

As a monitor, he’s also learned how to identify what types of birds might be nesting in his boxes. He said a bluebird builds nests out of grass or pine needles, without using feathers. Sparrows will use any lightweight trash, Smith said, including cigarette butts, toilet paper and whatever else they can pick up.

On a warm spring day, it’s not hard to notice the sound of bluebirds singing about his property. Yet, Smith said he really feels satisfied with his work as he sees the bluebirds fly away, singing — and observing how groups of “families” will stay together. The baby bluebirds that hatch first here will stay around, he added.

Observation is a big part of the Audubon groups, as their members will take meticulous notes on the different types of fowls they find in the trail boxes, along with the number of nests and eggs. Last year’s numbers for the Middlefork Audubon came out to about 400 birds, but Smith said in the past they’ve had as many as 1,300.

Cheryl Vergin, another member of the Middlefork Audubon, helps with compiling all the data they receive from their many monitors, and coordinating the volunteers themselves. She took over the data tasks around 2005 for Betty Kannapel, a friend and neighbor of hers, as she got older. However, Vergin has been a bird monitor since the 1990s.

She said the monitors will observe how many eggs, the number of babies and the number of birds fledged. Over the years, she can’t say bird counts have increased, but they haven’t gone away. She added if they don’t have enough volunteer monitors, their counts will come out lower and less accurate.

Vergin also said area residents don’t need to be a member of their society to help keep track of the local bluebird population, if they have a nest box of their own and enough foliage around. However, amateur monitors should take care not to disturb any nests with baby birds.

According to Vergin, the local Audubon chapter has about 30 volunteer monitors in Vermilion County who work with their group.

She said she thinks the more time one spends in nature, and not attached to electronic gadgets, the better he or she is as a person, since “the environment is benefited just by you being in it and caring about it.”

“Things that are problems, things you see that don’t seem right, you can address,” she said. “We feel so much better because we see all this and we feel we’re helping the species from disappearing from Illinois because of the lack of habitat.”

James Smith’s daughter in-law, Suzanne Smith, now serves as president of the Middlefork Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society. In an email interview, she said it’s been her pleasure to participate in the Vermilion County bluebird nesting box project.

Smith said she was mentored by her father-in-law on the bluebird trailers at his farm, and she “began to realize the great potential of this project to engage people with nature through discovery and education.”

She added it allows their organization to expand through inviting volunteer box monitors, while enhancing nesting potential for bluebird and other cavity nesting species, such as the Carolina wrens, house wrens and tree swallows.

“There is great enjoyment in walking the trail, and by facilitating this project Middlefork Audubon can facilitate gatherings where volunteers can share their experiences and ask questions,” she said. “It’s a win-win for the birds and the volunteers.”