Leif Marking, who just might know more about bluebirds than anyone in Wisconsin, is using the knowledge he has acquired over a lifetime to ensure the preservation of the species.
In recognition of his efforts, Marking recently was given the Wisconsin Garden Club Federation Bronze Award at the organization’s state convention in Tomah.
The award, presented annually to someone outside the club for accomplishments in a field that advances WGCF objectives, was given to Marking on April 16.
“Garden club members are good listeners and do-ers, so I was pleased to get the award from them,” Marking said.
Retired now, Marking and his wife, Carol, split their time between his Brice Prairie home and the ridgetop farm where he grew up along Highway S in Holmen.
As a member of the Brice Prairie Conservation Association and the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin, Marking has been involved in figuring out how to increase bluebird populations that bottomed out in Wisconsin in the 1950s and early 1960s.
“I can remember going to get the cows when I was a kid and checking the fence posts to see which ones had bluebirds nesting in them,” Marking recalled. “That kind of habitat is no longer available.”
Besides the destruction of so much of their habitat, bluebirds became scarce because of stiff competition from a couple of European invaders: starlings and English sparrows. “Those are two pretty tough customers — sparrows have become the most populous birds in North America,” Marking said.
A researcher for the Fish and Wildlife Service for 32 years, Marking turned his skills toward increasing bluebird populations after his retirement. “My motto is a bluebird in every box,” he said.
The award he received from the WGCF called Marking “the best friend a bluebird could ask for.” The numbers certainly back up that assessment.
As project manager of the Brice Prairie Conservation Association’s Bluebird Project, Marking has, along with other volunteers, built hundreds of bluebird boxes this decade. But that is just a part of figuring out what bluebirds most need to be happy.
“The difference between us and most homeowners is that we monitor the nests,” Marking said. In doing so, they have learned much about bluebird reproduction. A measure of how far they have come is the number of fledglings they count each year.
In 2002 the bluebird project counted 500 fledglings on Brice Prairie. Five years later, the count was 5,399 birds. More than 28,000
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fledglings were counted in Wisconsin in 2007 — a count that lead the nation. “We’re shooting for 30,000 in 2011, and I think it will happen,” Marking said.
Bluebirds normally breed between April 15 and Aug. 21 and hatch two broods a year. “Usually by the end of July they will have had two broods,” Marking said. “They’re pretty pooped out by then.”
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As it turned out, 2007 happened to be a perfect year with no late frosts and no extremely hot days during the height of summer (hatchling mortality rates rise as the temperature nears 100 degrees).
In recent years, Marking has been using his research skills to figure out what kinds of nest boxes are best for bluebirds. The two main killers of hatchlings are cold during the first brood and heat during the second brood.
Marking and local volunteers have come up with a convertible box with sides that slide up and down. That way, the box can be kept closed during early spring when temperatures may be cold, yet lowered slightly below the roof line to vent during the latter part of the summer.
Last summer, Marking had hoped to be able to test the difference between vented and unvented boxes and exactly how much venting can help survival rates during hot weather.
“Unfortunately, my experiment didn’t work because the temperature only got to 89 degrees,” Marking said.
He’s running the experiment again this summer. With data loggers borrowed from the DNR, 10 boxes will be monitored every hour for the entire summer.
Marking publishes his results in journals so that the knowledge he gains can be used by others. It seems likely, for example, that vented boxes will be much more critical for bluebird reproduction rates in states a little further south than Wisconsin.
Birdhouse manufacturers have been receptive to some of the innovations developed here in the Coulee Region. “We encourage manufacturers to adopt our ideas and many of them do,” Marking said.
Among the things that Marking has discovered about nest boxes is that bluebirds like an oval hole, instead of a round one. “With a round hole they have to go inside and turn around to feed their young or build a nest,” he said. “An oval hole lets them lean in to do that — we’re trying to make the birds more efficient.”
Another innovation is a kerf (a small incision or indentation underneath the nest hole). That allows the birds to get a toehold,” Marking said. “Their nest materials is often wider than the hole. With the kerf they can push the nest materials inside easier. He says bluebirds also like to have a perch close to the box so that the male can guard it while the female lays her eggs.
Despite Parkinson’s disease, Marking is monitoring 175 bluebird boxes this year. “It’s kind of hard to give that up,” he said. “Bluebirds teach me things — every time I go out there I learn something.”
While it would appear bluebird populations are on the rebound, Marking is concerned about a new threat — this one from well-meaning bird lovers.
Bluebirds normally migrate south in the winter, but in recent years more and more are trying to winter here. Marking says there has been an increase in reports of birds at heated water baths and bird feeders.
He thinks that perhaps the most important attraction for keeping bluebirds in the region past their normal migration date is heated water baths. But warm water and food won’t necessarily keep the birds alive.
“I know of eight bluebirds that died in empty boxes during the winter,” Marking said. “The go in to roost at night, get hypothermia and die.”
Marking speculates that one solution to that problem might be to ask owners of heated water baths to not turn them on until later in December.