Bluebird man: Ivy volunteer builds houses for a beloved species

Male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in flight Male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) in flight

Building a bluebird box is a good project for a hobbyist woodworker, but most people don’t tackle quite as many boxes at once as Clark Walter. At certain times of the year, Walter’s woodworking shop in Ivy is packed nearly to the rafters with the parts and pieces that make up his bluebird box assembly line. Since 2012, he’s supplied homemade boxes to a growing contingent of naturalists and bird enthusiasts in central Virginia and well beyond.

It started when Walter took the Virginia Master Naturalist course. Based at Virginia Tech and sponsored by a raft of state agencies, the VMN program is well-known for training citizen scientists in 40-hour courses that cover everything from ecology to geology to native flora and fauna. “It’s much like taking a couple of college courses,” says Walter.

The idea is to train volunteers who can then take on projects around the state, doing conservation, education, and so on. A master naturalist must log at least 40 volunteer hours per year to remain certified, so as he went through the course, Walter was considering how to spend those hours.

A presentation by Ann Dunn, of the Virginia Bluebird Society, caught his attention. He had a background with birds: Before retiring, he’d worked with various nonprofits that did endangered- species conservation, including programs to reintroduce birds to their native habitats. “In the state of Ohio,” he says, “we built a collaboration to reintroduce trumpeter swans…that was very exciting and has shown great results.”

Bluebirds, as it happens, are a species with a fraught ecological history, having suffered a heavy blow to their population after the arrival of Europeans in North America. The introduction of invasive starlings and house sparrows means stiff competition for nesting spots; like bluebirds, they’re cavity nesters and raise young in openings like you’d find in a standing dead tree.

Meanwhile, the number of available nesting sites has declined. “As we develop more areas across Virginia, and it becomes an increasingly urbanized state, we don’t tend to leave standing dead trees in our yards,” says Michelle Prysby, director of the VMN program. Indeed, bird populations in the U.S. and Canada are suffering huge declines due to habitat loss: They’re down 29 percent since 1970.

For decades now, a coordinated conservation effort has tried to counteract these forces for bluebirds (and, along the way, their fellow native cavity nesters like chickadees and tree swallows) by providing artificial nesting sites. A relatively simple wooden box, affixed to a pole or tree in the right spot—bluebirds prefer open land to forest—can make a big difference to a nesting pair and their offspring.

Over time, thanks to individuals who put up boxes in their backyards, as well as organizations like the Bluebird Society that establish clusters of nest boxes (called “trails”) and assign volunteers to monitor what happens there, the population of bluebirds has made a real comeback.

For VMN volunteers, says Prysby, “Bluebird projects are really popular across all of our 30 chapters, because people really enjoy going to monitor the boxes, and they feel like they’re getting a tangible result when they see that a bluebird or a chickadee is using it.”

It doesn’t hurt that, as Dunn says, “Bluebirds are very attractive.”

That first year after completing the VMN course, Walter built 10 bluebird boxes for a trail he and Dunn established on the short street where he lives in Ivy. He placed them in backyards and fields, bringing his neighbors on board. “We’ve gotten a great response,” he says, “and the population density in our area seems to be growing.”

Simple enough. But that was only the beginning. “I mentioned the project to the class and took orders for another 25,” Walter says. When he delivered those, more students, and instructors, placed another 40 orders.

Clark Walter has built over 2,000 bluebird houses.

Fortunately, Walter has a woodshop and a genetic advantage: His grandfather was an inventor and industrial engineer—“a brilliant guy,” Walter says. “I sort of have his organizational thing behind me.” He figured out how to streamline the box-building process, cutting all the pieces at once, then assembling. That was a good move, because the number of orders is still blowing up.

Bird clubs and conservation groups in Charlottesville lined up to buy. Then groups in nearby counties. “A year later, VMN and the VBS were promoting it statewide, so within three years people were driving from Blacksburg and all corners of the state to pick up their orders.” Word spread to other states, from New York to Kentucky. The year the magazine of the North American Bluebird Society ran an article about Walter, he ended up building almost 700 boxes. “It got a little out of control,” he says modestly.

How did he become the go-to guy? For one thing, he sells all the boxes at cost: $35-39, including the mounting pole. For another thing, he builds the boxes to official specs—the opening just the right size to admit bluebirds but keep out starlings, plus a predator baffle to keep snakes from eating hatchlings.

“You know you’re getting a product that meets the right specs for providing a good habitat,” says Prysby. “You don’t want to be attracting animals to something that’s not a safe artificial habitat for them.”

“He’s a remarkable guy,” says Dunn. “He’s made a very big difference to the VBS.”

Having built more than 2,000 boxes, Walter has, it’s fair to say, made a difference to the bluebird population well beyond Virginia. He rattles off some stats: “Last year there were 41 official VBS trails in Albemarle and Fluvanna counties, and we had a total of 470 some nest boxes on those trails. They produced over 1,600 bluebird babies that successfully fledged and another 1,000 of other species.”

And one more number: Per year, he spends about 400 hours building boxes. No worries about staying certified with VMN: “I’ve got my quota.”

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