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Bird-Loving Volunteer Documents Progress
On Wings of Success, Birdhouse Project Enters Phase 2

By Carla Garnett

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

Proving the theory that "if you build it, they will come," NIH's groundskeeping maven is crowing not so much about a "field of dreams," but about what happened in a few of NIH's fields. The results of last year's birdhouse project are in, and they are splendid.

Continued...

"Because of our success, we're expanding," reports Lynn Mueller, chief of NIH grounds maintenance and landscaping, Office of Research Services. "We're entering phase 2. We're looking to attract more bluebirds, songbirds and other cavity nesters."

A bit of good fortune, coupled with good conditions and planning, helped the first phase of the project soar. An article about NIH's birdhouse installation project in the Feb. 20, 2001, issue of the NIH Record drew the attention of a local newspaper, the Bethesda Gazette, which interviewed Mueller for a front page story. A retired neighbor and self-described longtime bluebird fancier, Jim Gardner, happened to see the story and called Mueller to volunteer to track the project's progress. Gardner's faithful biweekly checks of each of the close to 30 birdhouses provided documentation NIH probably could not have gotten any other way.

Tweet Success? More birdhouses go up on campus grounds.

"We were glad to get Jim Gardner's offer to help," Mueller says. "We really couldn't afford to devote the time that he did to the tracking."

A former employee at the Audubon Naturalist Society located a few miles east of NIH in Chevy Chase, Gardner recalls that the society had tried several years ago to attract bluebirds to its property, but never had any success.

"I don't think they have enough field," he says, noting that the NIH grounds are ideal. "What you need is lots of lawn area with insects and a pretty good water supply. I hope we have a lot more birds and nestings this year."

Pleased with last year's effort, Mueller hopes for more this year as well. "I think we were very successful overall with at least three of the 16 bluebird houses having successful bluebird young in May through June and then having what we think was a repeat nesting in one house in August," he says. "Another house had chickadees in June. Of the 15 other songbird houses erected, there were at least three nestings by titmice, wrens and chickadees, mainly in the wooded area along the creek west of Bldg. 21."

Mueller says there was really no apparent rhyme or reason to the houses or locations that attracted the most bluebird activity. "Success came from the boxes east of the National Library of Medicine and in the Natcher Bldg.'s north courtyard," he notes. "The grounds east of the library don't get much foot traffic, because there are few sidewalks in that area, so we ruled out that the birds were attracted to people. In contrast, the Natcher Bldg. area sees quite a few people," leading from the Metro station to a major conference area. Natcher was the site of the double brood, where a family left and later returned to nest again in the same NIH birdhouse.

Gardner, whose love of bluebirds originated when he was a small boy growing up at his grandmother's home in Indian Valley, Idaho, explains that short of acquiring the services of experts in banding there is really no way to confirm that the same bluebird family stopped by NIH twice.

"Bluebirds could almost be considered a domesticated bird," Mueller points out. "They aren't particularly bothered by people." The mother bird, he explains, normally will stay with her eggs or hatchlings despite whatever else is going on in the vicinity. However, Mueller requests that the birds and their boxes not be disturbed at any time.

Harry Hill (l) and Ken Hunter of NIH groundskeeping and maintenance erect one of several new birdhouses on the lawn of the Natcher Center. Last year, birdhouses in the same vicinity attracted difficult-to-lure bluebirds that help keep the mosquito population in check.

Besides the aesthetic value of having a thriving avian population on the campus, a more practical goal of the project was to try to reduce the number of pesky pests in residence here — without resorting to insecticides. Mueller says jokingly that without a "bite survey, there's no way to tell" if mosquitoes found fairer feasting grounds elsewhere, but he feels certain that "any bird population will have an effect on insect populations."

Not as successful yet, however, is the effort to establish a brown bat colony. The plan was to install a few bat houses near construction activity that was under way last year for the refurbishment of Bldg. 15K. "We thought that bats might have taken up residence in the old attic or roofing areas of Bldg. 15K," Mueller says. "We hoped that when the construction workers began to clear out those areas the bats would need to find other places to live and would seek shelter in the homes we had provided, but apparently there were no bats in that old house. We're still hopeful that other bat colonies that may exist on campus will need someplace to stay as they expand, have more babies and outgrow their current living arrangements."

In the coming weeks, Mueller and his crew will be installing several more birdhouses on campus grounds as well as providing several houses for the NIH Animal Center in Poolesville. At the Poolesville center in particular, they are hoping to attract kestrels, a small colorful falcon that will nest in boxes. They will also soon do some spring cleaning — examining the current structures and clearing them of parasites and leftover nesting material. Next year, Mueller says he has a plan to lure a population of a certain songbird, a voracious mosquito eater that also happens to be the largest swallow in North America.

"My hope of putting up a purple martin house will probably be postponed until 2003," he says, "because the area where we want to put it is potentially part of the large stormwater management pond that will be located near NLM's southeast lawn. The large water feature will make it a much more attractive area for purple martins and tree swallows."


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