The return of bluebirds to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem occurs like clockwork. I usually see my first bluebird of the year between the second and third week of March. This year, it was on March 20Th. During spring, they are still dispersing and when you see one, you see several. The way their bright blue color flashes across a snow-covered hillside is a sure sign that winter is coming to an end in this rocky mountain habitat. When I worked as a snowcoach driver in Yellowstone, I would see my first bluebirds in a meadow just west of Canyon Village a week or so before the winter season was over. In those days, that was a sign that my friends and I were about to head to the desert southwest to escape the snow.
Here at the Cirql H, we see Mountain Bluebirds. At your house, you may have a chance to see Eastern Bluebirds or Western Bluebirds, depending on where you live. In those areas, they are still recovering from the land clearing and habitat loss that happened in the 1700s and 1800s. As civilization expanded and land was cleared for crops, much of the good nesting habitat was lost. Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters; they use abandoned woodpecker holes in trees and similar spaces to nest. As forests and dead or down trees disappeared from the landscape, so did the bluebird.
To help with the recovery, bluebird boxes started to appear all across the country. You most likely have seen them spaced along fence rows in rural areas. There are very specific parameters for bluebird boxes. They should have an entrance hole one and a half inches around and the boxes should be no higher than five feet off the ground. They will inhabit spaces that are higher if that is all that is available. In the 1800s, farmers built elaborate multilevel bluebird houses to attract bluebirds; that practice was more of a way to fight off mosquitos and other insects.
So, this is where you ask,”How do wolves help bluebirds?”
In the early 1990s, I was working as a guide in Yellowstone; I drove park busses in the summer and as I mentioned, snowcoaches in the winter. That was during the time that the big push to reintroduce wolves was in full swing. As guides, we would speculate on how wolves would alter the landscape. With more wolves there would be less coyotes. Less coyotes meant more red fox. Wolves also meant less elk and the elk that were still around would behave more like elk; they would tighten-up their herds and those herds would be on the move more than they were when the top predator was missing. The increased movement helped the riparian edges in Yellowstone recover from overgrazing; elk would no longer be able to spend days eating all the new growth along the park’s rivers and streams.
That is where I see the connection between wolves and bluebirds. As willow bushes, cottonwood trees and aspen trees rebounded, so did beaver. The habitat really changed. As beaver began to repopulate the area, they built dams that flooded meadows and created ponds. Many of those new beaver ponds flooded forests and killed trees. Those dead and decaying trees created habitat for our beloved bluebird.
So as I welcome bluebirds and spring back into my world, I find I have a better appreciation for the connections found in nature. When I hear a so-called outdoorsman complain about wolves, I ask myself, “What the hell do they have against bluebirds?”