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ONALASKA, Wis. - Now is the time to check those bluebird houses, put up more nest boxes and get ready to report nesting results to a Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin representative.

Many states, including Minnesota, have state and county representatives and organizations similar to Wisconsin's BRAW. Minnesota's organization is called Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program. The North American Bluebird Society, or NABS, is also available to give advice on assisting Eastern bluebirds.

La Crosse County became the bluebird production capital of Wisconsin last year, according to Leif and Carol Marking.

"Our goal was to produce more than 1,000 young bluebirds in La Crosse County in 2002, and we surpassed our goal," Leif said. "Eleven Brice Prairie Conservation Association members have 285 houses that we monitor. Those houses fledged 1,138 bluebirds, or about four bluebirds per nest box, in 2002."

BPCA members reported 324 birds fledging in 2000 and 544 in 2001. Leif is president of the Brice Prairie Conservation Association, project manager for the club's bluebird project and the La Crosse County representative to BRAW. He is also chairman of the nest box design committee for BRAW. Leif's wife, Carol, is his assistant, his typist and a superb bluebird spotter.

"He's very passionate and enthusiastic about bluebirds," Carol said about Leif's interest in this bird.

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To understand bluebirds, one must understand the birds' peculiar nesting needs. "Bluebirds are cavity nesting songbirds," Leif said. "But they're unable to create their own nesting cavities. In years past, they have used natural cavities in trees and wooden fence posts that were usually created by woodpeckers."

Bluebird enthusiasts have replaced woodpeckers by creating thousands of nest boxes. Many people were trying to build a better bluebird nest box than the next person. Competition has become fierce in some regions, but Leif tries to put himself above that. He prefers to concentrate on proper nest box placement.

"I know what house works the best for us," he said. "It's the NABS design with the optional oval opening and a saw slit for the bird to get some traction. All 285 of our houses are this type." The Brice Prairie Conservation Association began its bluebird project about 10 years ago.

"By using the NABS houses, putting these houses at least 200 yards apart and in a location where the birds can find open areas to pick up insects and worms, we've had success," Leif said. "The houses have to be predator proof, too. We use PVC pipe over a metal fence post, and that keeps the mice and raccoons away." The Markings have discovered a few other tips that we can use to make our bluebird nest boxes more successful. "Face the box opening east or northeast to prevent heat exhaustion in spring and summer," Leif said. "And never face the box opening toward the road if it's near a road." La Crosse County records show this plan has resulted in about 10 percent of the bluebirds reported fledged in Wisconsin being hatched in 285 nest boxes maintained by BPCA members. Many more bluebirds no doubt fledge and go unreported in La Crosse County and other regions. Wrens are predators on bluebird eggs and take over nest boxes if the boxes aren't properly distributed according to plan. "Wrens destroyed, conservatively, 100 bluebird eggs or young bluebirds from our houses last year," Leif said. "We try to select locations that do not favor wrens." House sparrows, which are not native birds and are unprotected, also cause problems if nest boxes are placed too close to farm buildings, Leif said. "Anyone can get the plans to build the type of house we use," Carol said. "Just go to on the computer. The optional oval opening drawings are there, too."

Jerry Davis is a free-lance writer. He can be reached at sivadjam@mhtc.net or (608) 924-1112.

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