A Discussion on Saving Bluebirds through Private Conservation, and a Tribute to Andy Thompson

The following interview of CEI Senior Fellow R.J. Smith was inspired with the encouragement of former CEI staff member Andy Thompson, who passed away recently. Like R.J., Andy was a nature lover and highly knowledgeable birdwatcher—a hobby that connected the two and promoted their shared appreciation for private conservation. While I only got to know Andy over several months in 2019 when he returned to CEI to do consulting work, he quickly became a cherished friend thanks to his unique, warm demeanor and outstanding character.

When Andy rejoined CEI in 2019, he, R.J., and I hatched a plan to resume CEI efforts on private conservation and free-market environmentalism, which originally were launched by CEI’s great and fearless leader Fred Smith back in the 1980s. We decided to start with a Q&A interview with R.J. Smith. In it we discuss how private conservation efforts helped revive the populations of America’s three bluebird species.

We post this today in honor of Andy and his ardent support of R.J.’s private conservation work. With all the mayhem created by COVID-19, economic lockdowns, and racial unrest, now is a good time to set aside all the bad news and read something positive. Surely, we should have gotten around to posting it sooner, but here it is for you to enjoy.

Angela Logomasini: This is Angela Logomasini with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I am here today with R.J. Smith, who many people recognize as a founder of free-market environmentalism. That is, he is one of the first people to foster the idea that we don’t have to have big government to solve environmental problems. In fact, many times government gets in the way. Things like private property, entrepreneurship, and private conservation are better keys to solving environmental problems. R.J. coined the phrase “free-market environmentalism,” which involves the use of property rights, markets, and prices to protect the environment, as opposed to the use of government command-and-control regulation and bureaucratic orders.

Today we’re going to talk about one case study: the case study of bluebirds. We will answer the following questions:  Why did bluebirds need help in the first place? When did people start paying attention? And most important, how did people resolve these problems?

But first, R.J., tell us a little bit about the bluebird species we are talking about today.

R.J. Smith: Bluebirds are native to North America. There are three species of them, and they are not found elsewhere in the world.

Most of the populations occur in the United States, with smaller numbers of birds nesting in southern Canada, and also some going down through Mexico into Central America. The Eastern Bluebird occurs in the eastern United States from the Atlantic Coast out to the Rocky Mountains and from southern Canada to Florida, to the Gulf Coast. There’s a small population of Eastern Bluebirds that also are found in southeast Arizona. The Western Bluebird lives all across the western United States. And then there’s a sky blue, a sort of cerulean sky blue, bluebird called the Mountain Bluebird, which is found throughout the Intermountain West, again from the southern Canadian Plains down to Northern Arizona.

Angela: So which of the three bluebirds was in trouble? Or were they all in trouble?

R.J.: All three species were having problems. In the middle of the 20th century, 1950s into the ‘60s and early ‘70s, bluebird lovers, biologists, and ornithologists began to notice that there had been a serious decline in bluebird populations of all three species. Particularly the Eastern Bluebird, occurring in the United States where most of the people were, they observed populations were falling.

Angela: So, what was the source of the problem?

R.J.: There were a number of causes. The main cause that they discovered was related to a shortage of nesting spots for bluebirds. Bluebirds are cavity nesters. While most birds make their nests in trees, or in a bush or the ground, there are around 60 species of birds in North America that live in cavities. These cavities are usually naturally formed holes found in trees, usually in dead trees, but some healthy trees also naturally form a lot of cavities. So, bluebirds would build their nests in dead trees or sometimes in a fence post, or maybe in an orchard they would find a dead branch on an old tree with some holes they could use for nesting.

Angela: They would also use woodpecker holes, correct?

R.J.: Yes, they can also use woodpecker holes. Woodpeckers are one bird species that can actually make a hole in a tree. A bluebird can’t. It has a very delicate little bill. But woodpeckers make a lot of holes that other cavity nesting birds use as nesting sites.

Angela: What exactly caused the housing shortage for bluebirds?

R.J.: The supply of nesting cavities became a problem following the introduction of some bird species from Europe that were not native here in the United States. During the late 19th century, around the 1880s and 1890s, there were a lot of people in the United States who were interested in introducing birds from England—birds they had known in England and Europe—into the United States. They kept trying to bring these birds over and introduce them.

Two of the birds they successfully introduced eventually became major pests. One is the House Sparrow from England. This is the little House Sparrow that people see strutting around on the sidewalks of major cities and suburban neighborhoods. And the other was the European Starling, which is a larger bird and more aggressive than the House Sparrow.

Angela: How did these birds essentially create a housing shortage for bluebirds?

R.J.: Both of those birds are also cavity nesters. Their population exploded after they were introduced into the United States because they had no natural enemies, and they swept across the country in a very short period of time. In just a matter of decades, they went from the East Coast to the West Coast. Everywhere across the country they began to take over, the House Sparrows and the Starlings. And so, there were no places for the bluebirds to nest, and their populations began to decline, and began to decline relatively rapidly.

And they are not just a problem for bluebirds, but for all cavity nesting birds, particularly when you get out in the West.

Out West you will often find arid areas where there are essentially no trees large enough for any cavity nesting birds. But then there might be a little oasis created by a small stream or a spring, where there are a number of tall trees. And over the years, woodpeckers may have drilled a lot of holes in those trees for nesting.

Then cavity nesters like bluebirds and flycatchers would use those cavities as well. You would find some large flycatchers there, as well as Purple Martins in those isolated areas of trees and dead wood. Yet bluebirds and Purple Martins would also migrate south in the wintertime, and the invading population of Starlings and House Sparrows would come and take over their nest sites. And since these pest birds are non-migratory, they would be there all year. So, when the bluebirds or Purple Martins, or whatever had nested in these holes, returned in the spring, they would find that their homes had been usurped by these alien species. And there was no place for them to nest. And so, the spread of the House Sparrow and the Starling harmed a lot of species.

Angela: You said there were a number of things affecting bluebirds. What were some of the other factors?

R.J.: There was also an increased number of predators in a lot of areas, particularly as more people began to move out to rural areas near fields, farms, and agricultural meadows. There would be an increase in raccoons or opossums that would get into bluebird nests.

Angela: Why would suburbanization lead to an increase in predators?

R.J.: Because there would be a lot more food around for them to feed on. There would be rats and other animals looking for food in trash cans or around barns, such as the corn and grain that would be dropped on the ground. Or the predators would go through horse manure picking out seeds and stuff like that. Same with feral cats.

Also, the Starlings are notorious predators as well. They would fly up to nesting cavities and stick their heads down in the cavity and eat the young bluebirds or eat the eggs or whatever.

Angela: Yeah, I’ve seen the House Sparrows do that—go in and take the chickadee nests and chase them away.

R.J.: That is a problem, too. Taking over the nesting site was one of the most important and serious problems facing bluebirds.

In addition, farmers began to move toward a system of “clean farming,” in which it was considered messy to leave dead trees standing on your property. And if there was a dead branch on an old apple tree, farmers would no longer just leave that there. But those dead trees and branches are very good for wildlife, and they would often have cavities in them. But more and more farms began to remove dead trees, dead branches, and the like.

Angela: So, what did people do to help the bluebirds?

R.J.: In the 1970s, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, the author of a book on bluebirds [The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight for Survival], contacted a number of people, particularly Mary Janetatos, the president of the Audubon Naturalist Society, which was located here in the greater Washington, D.C. area up in Chevy Chase, to figure out what they could do to help the bluebird.

At the time, bluebirds were popular among bird watchers and the public alike. Bluebirds were on birthday cards and other greeting cards, the bluebird of happiness, and people enjoyed their lovely sweet little warbling song. And it was one of the first birds that would come north in the springtime, which was a very welcome event among bird lovers. So, these bluebird fans gathered to decide: What can we do about it?

They initially met with some of the major conservation organizations, including the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation. But these organizations were not interested in the plight of one little bird, one little cavity nesting bird. They wanted massive government programs to control growth or stop timber harvests, or whatever. Without help from those groups, Dr. Zeleny, Mrs. Janetatos, and their allies formed the North American Bluebird Society, which printed and began to make publicly available, a little booklet entitled Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone?

Angela: What exactly did they do to help the bluebirds?

R.J.: Shortly after Zeleny and Janetatos began this operation in 1978, there was one really big thing that helped the North American Bluebird Society take off. In November 1979, a writer with Parade Magazine wrote a story about Zeleny’s group entitled “You Can Hear Bluebirds Sing Again.” Many people today may not read hard copy newspapers, so they may not realize that Parade Magazine was a common Sunday supplement to newspapers across the United States, and it reached some 15 million people every Sunday.

The story discussed the plight of bluebirds and what was happening to them. This unique American species was vanishing, it explained, and it detailed how concerned ornithologists, bird watchers, and biologists formed a society to help them recover. The story urged readers to write to the North American Bluebird Society for information and to get a copy of the booklet about the plight of the bluebirds.

As a result of that, in a short period of time, they got something like 80,000 responses—which was very big time—asking for information. And every one of those people was sent information from the society with copies of Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone? In fact, over the years, well over a million copies of that booklet had been distributed all over the United States.

Angela: Do you have a copy somewhere?

R.J.: I don’t happen to have a copy.

Angela: We should get one. It would be a nice piece of history to have on hand.

R.J.: It would be. So, they set up the society basically as a national bluebird preservation project. They, notably, took considerable pride in that it was a private, voluntary, grassroots association. It wasn’t political. And they didn’t have a headquarters; they didn’t have paid staff. They just had volunteers. It’s a classic example of an American Tocquevillian private association.

It began to grow and grow and grow. They continued to send out Where Have All the Bluebirds Gone? But that’s not all. They also shared information about what people could do to help the bluebirds recover. And the main thing they did—capitalizing on the unique opportunity they had—was, because bluebirds were cavity nesters, was to design a perfect little cavity. They would design manmade, artificial nest boxes that would be just the right size for the bluebirds.

Angela: But wouldn’t the Starlings and House Sparrows take over these nest boxes as well?

R.J.: Well, they did a lot of experimenting to make sure they designed essentially the perfect nest box. They knew the right dimensions of the box, how far from the bottom the nest hole should be. They didn’t want any perch put out front because bluebirds don’t need a perch. Bluebirds will just fly right into the hole. And if you put a perch there, it allows something like a Starling, a non-native invasive Starling, to come in and sit on the perch and reach its head into the nest to eat the eggs or the young. So, they didn’t want that.

They also recommended drilling a couple of little ventilation holes in the box and a couple of little drainage holes in the bottom in case rain got in. They suggested making the box out of something that would last a good while and wouldn’t retain heat, a good wooden box. They used things like cedar or cypress, particularly red cedar. And it’s important also to see the box did not face the prevailing wind so that rain wouldn’t be blown into the nesting hole. They advised that, whenever possible, the box should not be facing west. That way it wouldn’t get the hot afternoon sun, which would get the box overly hot and risk baking the eggs or baking the young. And they also suggested mounting the boxes on poles rather than sticking them on a tree because that prevented insects and ants from easily invading the nesting box. And the boxes were also equipped to make sure that either the lid or one of the sides was not nailed shut, but instead it should have a latch on it so you could open up the box to inspect what was going on inside.

Angela: So where did they place these boxes?

R.J.: They suggested mounting the box on a metal or wooden pole that included a baffle or a baffler around the pole to prevent snakes or raccoons or cats or squirrels or whatever from climbing up the pole.

But the single most important thing was the size of the nest hole, the diameter of the nest hole, because you wanted the hole obviously large enough so that the bluebirds could get in, but you didn’t want it large enough for House Sparrows or the Starlings, which are slightly larger and plumper, to get in. And so, with all the experimenting they did, they found out that the ideal sized nest-hole, was one-and-a-half inches, precisely one-and-eight-sixteenths inches for the Eastern Bluebird. And for the Western Bluebird and the Mountain Bluebird, which are a tiny bit larger than the Eastern Bluebirds, their nest holes had to be one-and-nine-sixteenths inches.

Angela: So precise.

R.J.: So precise. And that worked. People began putting up nest boxes, people who lived out in the suburbs, or in the country, or on a ranch or a farm or something like that, scattering nesting boxes around their property. And the North American Bluebird Society also asked people to establish what are called bluebird trails. These trails would place nesting boxes along a long stretch of land that might meander along the side of the road, or through a meadow, or along a jogging path, or maybe a path along the river, or maybe a horse trail or something like that. Every so many yards, you would nail up another bluebird nesting box, creating a bluebird trail. Some of them might be found on one person’s land, if you had a fairly large property, or they could cross property lines running many miles. In Montana, there was one trail out there that is well over 100 miles long. And these would have to be maintained. You would have to periodically monitor the boxes, and check them regularly, perhaps once a week, throughout the nesting season.

Angela: Why would you have to check them?

R.J.: To make sure a predator hadn’t gotten in or that another bird, such as a House Sparrow, Tree Swallow, or House Wren, had taken over the cavity. In that case, you might want to remove their nest before they started laying eggs so that the bluebirds would have a chance. And through the season you also would want to monitor to make sure that bees or ants hadn’t gotten inside or something like that. And the monitors would take notes and send all the information to the North American Bluebird Society for basic citizen science.

Angela: Why did they collect all this information?

R.J.: To find out what helped make them successful and what percentage of the nests were successful. Then they would find out if some were more successful in certain areas than in others and why. They’d gather all this information to find out what was the single best way to help the bluebirds recover and prosper.

Angela: So, who was involved in setting up the trails and maintaining the trails?

R.J.: The trails were maintained, very often by nature clubs or birding societies. But other groups were involved too, such as the Boy Scouts or 4-H clubs, that would take them on as a project. In many cases you had schoolteachers, particularly biology teachers, who would set up a bluebird trail around the school. It would have to be a rural school, obviously. And each class would do all the work with monitoring the bluebirds and keeping a watch on them as they went from the four little blue eggs to eventually four cute little bluebirds. The one trail that was out in Montana, which was 100 miles long was maintained by a rural mailman who, while out doing his deliveries, would stop and check all the boxes along the highway.

They also realized that there had to be a certain spacing of boxes along the trail. You shouldn’t put them all too close together. They did recommend that if you just had space for one box, you also put up another near it, within about 10 to 12 yards. So, if you only had one box, and there was a very aggressive House Sparrow or House Wren trying to take it over, then there would be another box for the bluebirds to nest successfully. And then if you are creating a bluebird trail, they recommended that you put up these double boxes like every 100 yards apart.

Angela: So how many people were involved in putting up bluebird boxes and trails?

R.J.: The numbers are substantial because the market for bluebird boxes exploded. Not only was the North American Bluebird Society selling nest boxes and also providing blueprints on how to make your own, it would recommend companies that followed the best specifications in terms of the right size and, more importantly, the proper sized hole. There were suddenly lots of places to get quality bluebird boxes.

Angela: So, they created a market for well-designed bluebird boxes. That’s pretty cool.

R.J.: They created the market and people began to put up nest boxes all over the place. You can find them at almost any price level, with do-it-your-own kits being relatively cheap, say $10 or $20. And you can also find high-quality approved nest boxes that will last for decades that are usually made out of something like red cedar for around $20 to $25. And then you can find nest boxes that soar all the way up to $100 or more.

Angela: Wow. There is even a luxury bluebird box market!

R.J.: Right. A lot of people are more interested in just having a fancy box or cute box, a pretty box, on their property, whether it does any good or not, and they’ll spend a lot of money for that. But the most important thing was the design, so you have the right hole size, not the wrong hole size.

Angela: Is there an estimate of exactly how many of these boxes people actually put out?

R.J.: Well, with so many people making boxes, and so many places to purchase them, it’s hard to know how many. Nobody has been keeping data on how many bluebird boxes have been sold since the founding of the North American Bluebird Society in 1978. I’ve figured out a rough estimate of, maybe, for bluebird boxes, 7 million or so. And, obviously, the total number of bird boxes that have been sold has been in the tens of millions.

Angela: That’s quite amazing. Do people continue to buy these boxes?

R.J.: Yes, they do. More and more people continue to get into this effort. And it helps far more than bluebirds. As I mentioned earlier, there’s something like 60 species of cavity nesting birds in the United States. These include wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, all the woodpeckers, a number of owls, and even one little falcon—the American Kestrel, which was formerly called the Sparrow Hawk. Now there’s a market for providing boxes for all kinds of cavity nesting birds.

Angela: So, it set an example for people to follow for all the birds that are cavity nesters. What happened to the bluebirds? What happened to their populations? Have we been able to track those changes?

R.J.: Fortuitously, in 1966, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, started what they called a North American Breeding Bird Survey. It’s a system of random surveys with thousands of participants, all of whom had to be experienced birders, in that that they could identify the various birds that they saw and also the birds that they heard.

These surveys were conducted all across the United States and southern Canada. They were designed to determine what was happening with the populations of nesting birds in North America. There was a consistent protocol that was followed. The participants would drive established routes and then stop every so many miles, stop for X number of minutes at each stop, and listen and watch. You would record everything you saw and everything you heard. And there was no counting in between, not even if a Bald Eagle flew over your car, as you were driving to the next stop. This was a standard procedure that was done, year after year, decade after decade, to try to get accurate data on bird populations in the United States.

Now, they have something like 50 years, half a century, of data. The data shows, among other things, a huge success for the Eastern Bluebird. The numbers are up. They have been increasing for years, and they are totally recovered in many areas. In fact, they are found in new areas now because there were no nest boxes in those areas before conservation efforts began. It’s probably the biggest single success.

Angela: Were the Eastern Bluebirds at a greater threat than the other bluebirds?

R.J.: That’s hard to tell. Because the Eastern Bluebird occurred in the eastern United States, where most of the human population was, it was best known. Mountain Bluebirds and the Western Bluebirds lived out in relatively low population areas with wide open spaces and vast forests.

Angela: So, do the data indicate that the North American Bluebird Society program was a success?

R.J.: It’s been very successful. The Eastern Bluebird population now has been increasing for something like 50 years in conjunction with when the North American Bluebird Society started. The nesting boxes and trails were the causal factor in their subsequent recovery.

The Western Bluebird, which occurs on the western edge of the Great Plains all the way to the West Coast, has been stable now for the last 50 years. It’s no longer declining. So that’s a big turnaround, too. The Mountain Bluebird population appears to be still declining. It lives in much wilder areas within the Intermountain West, where there are very few population centers with the exception of a few larger cities, like Denver and Salt Lake City. But changing land use patterns in the west, particularly, affected these birds. Timber harvests have benefited the Western Bluebirds because that created more grasslands and bluebirds are essentially birds of grasslands. So, when timber harvests began to slow and when the policy of fire suppression began, that had negative impact on the Mountain Bluebird populations. But it appears now that, just in about the last decade or so, even the Mountain Bluebird population has begun to stabilize, too.

Angela: Oh, that’s good.

R.J.: So, the bluebird case study is a highly successful example of private conservation. Bird lovers and conservationists saw a problem. They figured out what the causes of the problem were and they organized. They got volunteers. They began to put up bluebird boxes and bluebird trails all across the country. Bluebirds recovered and they are doing well. This is one of the strengths of private conservation. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, made an observation that Americans had a unique ability to form voluntary associations to solve problems. Instead of turning to big government to solve their problems, they would form voluntary associations to take care of the problem.

Angela: What do you think might have happened if the government had gotten involved before private individuals took action?

R.J.: If we turned to the government, it’s very likely that things would have been different. Politicians or regulators would likely have passed laws or rules regulating land use. They would have mandated that there would be no farming, no plowing or no mowing, no activity whatsoever within perhaps 100 yards or maybe a quarter of a mile of any known bluebird habitat or nesting area. And these restrictions, the threats of government penalty or regulation, would have an adverse impact on the public. The result would have been that people wouldn’t want to have bluebirds on their land. They wouldn’t want to help them, and bluebird populations would decline.

Angela: So why exactly is that?

R.J.: Because people are not afraid of having birds on their land, but they are very scared of having the government on their land, of having the feds on their land. The regulations would have undermined activities that affect people’s livelihoods, such as preventing farming: dairy farming, forestry, cattle grazing, and the like. It might have preempted people from building additions to their homes. It would have ruined property values and undermined all kinds of land use as well as other freedoms. So, people would not want to attract bluebirds to their property. No one would have been willing to erect a bluebird box on their land because as soon as a bluebird took up residence the landowner would have been at risk of violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by “disturbing” or “harassing” an endangered species and could be fined. The ESA has proven to be a generally unsuccessful law because it penalizes people for helping species and being good stewards.

In fact, that happened, and continues to happen under the ESA.

Angela: Yes, the ESA is a topic that we will discuss on another day.

What I find really amazing is the sustainability of this voluntary bluebird conservation program. People continue to do this. There is a longevity of it. It’s not a fad. It’s enduring. And I think it’s really tremendous. Don’t you think so, R.J.?

R.J.: Absolutely. It’s become a tradition and a habit for a great many people. If you have a bird club, they continue to do this year after year. If you have a biology teacher in a rural school, a country school, she continues to do this year after year and introduce her kids to it. And if you have a family that’s out on a dairy farm, out in the country, or they have a small organic farm raising tomatoes out in suburbia, they bring up the kids doing this. And to the kids, this is something they do year after year. They look forward to the bluebird season, checking out the bluebird boxes and watching the four little bluebird eggs eventually become four little baby bluebirds. People enjoy this. It’s part of living in the country and living with nature.

Angela: Even people who live on the edge of suburbia are trying to do it as well. You are right. It passes down, and I love that generational aspect of it. It’s a fantastic example of private conservation, something you have been working on your whole life. We have some other examples that we will be able to discuss in the future, correct?

R.J.: Absolutely.