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Leif Marking: the best friend a bluebird could ask for

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Leif Marking has had a lifelong interest in bluebirds.

He used to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but retired and today continues his interest in birds as a member of the Brice Prairie Conservation Association and the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin.

Marking and another bluebird enthusiast, Fred Craig, each monitor 150 bluebird houses every year, and their organization fledged 4,756 bluebirds last summer.

“Eastern bluebirds used to nest in holes, hollowed out by woodpeckers, in wooden fence posts but that has long since passed since farmers don’t use wooden posts anymore,” Marking said. “The natural cavities for bluebirds are pretty much taken up by competitive species, such as English sparrows and starlings. Up until 30 years ago, bluebirds were pretty much considered rare here, but now individuals and clubs put up artificial nesting boxes. Bluebirds are totally dependent on cavities, because they are cavity nesters.”

Marking grew up on a farm and remembers going out into the pastures with bare feet 60 years ago and watching bluebirds that then lived in holes of wood fence posts.

The Brice Prairie Conservation Association was formed in 1960 to help improve Lake Onalaska, and has expanded into other projects such as bluebird restoration. Originally its members produced just 100 bluebird fledglings per year but, with improved techniques, now fledge more than 4,700 bluebirds a year. It is the largest producer of bluebirds in the state, and wants to help other organizations build and monitor bluebird houses.

Marking uses the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) nesting box to improve bluebird production. The cedar houses are mounted on 7-foot tall steel T-type fence posts that are covered with a 5-foot section of PVC pipe to keep the houses inaccessible to predators, especially raccoons and cats.

He also makes wood duck houses out of used metal Freon canisters. He cuts the tops off of two canisters and then fits them together with a hinge, adding wood shavings in the bottom of the canister. The hen will add down and lay eggs in the “house.”

“Using these metal nests, in the last four years we have raised 2,000 ducklings each year in our monitored houses,” Marking said. He used to monitor over 100 wood duck houses each year.

Marking said bluebirds are ambitious nesters that return early in the spring to the nesting grounds in good physical shape, while tree swallows, which come a longer distance from across the Gulf of Mexico, are in poorer physical shape and take a while to build up energy reserves for nesting. But, the swallows will compete with bluebirds for nesting spots later during the nesting season.

Bluebirds normally return to Wisconsin in late March and they will lay four to six eggs, beginning in April, over a five-day period. The eggs normally hatch in 12 to 14 days. The young will fledge, or leave the nest, 17 to 20 days after hatching.

Marking said bluebirds will often return to nest in the same house for several years, and they like to have nearby telephone or electric lines where they can sit near their nest box and can forage in nearby grasslands.

He has noticed that the female does most of the feeding of young hatchlings, although both male and female will bring in food.

Bluebirds are quite docile which allows people to check the nest boxes, but they can be driven out by more aggressive birds such as tree swallows and sparrows.

To add enjoyment to monitoring bluebird houses, Marking suggests that people keep records. He records the number of eggs, hatches and fledglings. This helps the association learn the total number of birds produced from artificial nest boxes.

Back in the early 1990s, the production rate per house was down about 1.9 bluebirds. Now, with the NABS-style house, the production rate is about five bluebirds per house.

Sometimes bluebirds stay in the north during mild winters and then will utilize nannyberry, dogwood and sumac berries. However, extended cold periods normally force them south.

Wisconsin State Journal outdoors columnist Tim Eisele devotes his first column of the year to honoring people who have made a difference. This year two La Crosse area residents, Leif Marking and Larry Severeid, were selected. Severeid is a retired doctor who has turned his attention to developing a blight-resistant chestnut tree on his land near Rockland.

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