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Scout, twp. official team-up to save bluebird

Life Scout Alex McDonald, a junior at Oxford High School, checks to see how a prototype bluebird house fits on one of the 10 metal poles he placed around the Oxford Township Hall and Seymour Lake Park with the help of some fellow scouts from Oxford Troop 366. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
October 05, 2011 - A local scout and an Oxford Township official have teamed up to protect a native bird and help its declining population once again flourish.

Life Scout Alex McDonald, who's a member of Oxford Boy Scout Troop 366, is in the process of constructing 10 nest boxes (or birdhouses), specifically designed for Eastern Bluebirds, as his Eagle Scout project.

"It's aimed towards them and them only," said McDonald, who's a junior at Oxford High School.

The idea for the project came from township Supervisor Bill Dunn.

"What's happening is House Sparrows and European Starlings are very aggressive and they're taking all the prime nesting spots away from the bluebirds," Dunn explained. "They're wiping out the Eastern Bluebirds. I figured we could do something to help them."

Loss of habitat and environmental pollution have also contributed to the bluebird's decline.

"They really are a beautiful bird and I would hate to see them disappear," Dunn noted. "I always enjoy it when I spot one. It's a rare treat."

Back in the 1700s, bluebirds were plentiful in North America and their population expanded as settlers converted wild areas into open farmland, which provided an ideal habitat for feeding and nesting purposes, according to the Michigan Bluebird Society (www.michiganbluebirds.org).

It's believed the bluebird population continued to expand until the late 1800s when two non-native bird species were introduced to the United States – the House Sparrow and European Starling.

"These two aggressive and invasive species quickly spread and out-competed bluebirds for natural nesting sites," according to www.michiganbluebirds.org. "In addition, as urban areas expanded in the 1900s and pesticides started to be used in agriculture in increasing amounts, bluebird numbers declined more quickly."

However, over the last 15 years bluebird numbers have shown healthy improvement in many North American areas as people dedicated to preserving them have built nest boxes for them.

McDonald's project will continue those efforts by placing five nest boxes around the township hall at 300 Dunlap Rd. and five boxes in Seymour Lake Township Park.

"I'm kind of an environmentalist, so I thought why not give the environment back to these birds?" McDonald said. "They deserve it. It's their area. It shouldn't be taken (away) by an invasive species."

To ensure only bluebirds use the boxes, they will each have an entrance hole measured 1½ inches in diameter.

"This is large enough to let in Eastern Bluebirds, but too small to let in larger birds like starlings," according to www.michiganbluebirds.org.

All bluebirds are classified as cavity nesting birds, which means their natural choice for nesting in the wild, which takes place in late March and early April, is a hollowed-out cavity in a tree. Natural tree cavities are scarce these days for several reasons including extreme development, landscaping methods that remove dead or dying trees, and competition from House Sparrows and European Starlings.

Bluebirds cannot create their own nesting cavities. They have to rely on natural decay or woodpeckers to create cavities for them.

Human-built nest boxes provide a good alternative.

McDonald's boxes will be placed in areas consistent with the bluebird habitat. They like fairly open habitats consisting of large, short grassy areas. Bluebirds usually require 1-2 acres of open territory around their nesting site in order to find enough food to raise their young.

Bluebirds prefer to eat soft-bodied insects, so they must be able to see their food on or near the ground. Their typical feeding pattern is to perch on a utility line, snag or exposed tree limb, watch the ground, then dart down to catch their prey.

Dunn said he's proud of McDonald for "taking the ball and running with it."

"I just gave him the idea; he's doing all the work," the supervisor said. "Not only is this project going to help the local bluebird population, it's going to create a couple places within the township where bird watchers and nature lovers can go to appreciate this beautiful bird and see them raise their young. I think that's neat."

In addition to helping bluebirds, McDonald is excited about the prospect of this project helping him attain the coveted rank of Eagle Scout.

He said such an achievement "looks good on resumes, teaches life lessons and shows leadership."

"I think it's made me a better person overall," McDonald noted.

McDonald is hoping to attend Michigan State University, where he wishes to join the U.S. Air Force ROTC program and study either archaeology or industrial design.

McDonald is still collecting donations for his Eagle Scout project. Any individuals or businesses who wish to contribute are encouraged to call (248) 969-0932.

Any donations over and above what McDonald needs will be given to Oxford-Orion FISH, which helps feed the needy.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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