“Make Way for Ducklings” has nothing on the University of Mary Washington.
In Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s picture book, Michael the Policeman stops traffic one day so Mr. and Mrs. Mallard and their ducklings can safely cross the highway.
But at UMW, a parking lot expansion is being delayed for a couple of weeks until four recently hatched eastern bluebirds are old enough to leave their nesting box.
Rob Johnston, UMW’s assistant director of capital outlay, said work on the lot behind the University Tennis Center on Hanover Street was to have begun last Monday, and he knew that the Virginia Bluebird Society’s nesting box would have to be removed. A call was made to Anne Little, who founded the society with her husband, Carl Little, about 25 years ago.
“I was over there in three minutes,” said Little, who lives in Fredericksburg.
No one thought that bluebirds were using the box until an adult bluebird flew out as they got near. Inside the box, they found one egg and three newly hatched chicks with just a wisp of downy fluff on their heads.
“I said we’re going to delay the start until they fledge,” Johnston said. “The contractor was out here with us. He understood.”
The bluebird nesting box is one of 15 the society has installed around campus. It’s mounted on a pole under an red cedar that’s growing on the berm separating the parking lot from the tennis center. Bluebirds love to feast on the tree’s bluish-green berries, Little said.
The berm and all the trees growing on it will be removed as part of the parking lot expansion, which will increase the number of spaces from 15 with one handicap space to 129 with four handicap spaces. Work was expected to be done by Sept. 19, but probably won’t be ready until Oct. 7 now that its start is waiting on the bluebird chicks, Johnston said.
UMW plans to spend about $900,000 on the parking lot, which includes a $315,000 contribution from the city. Once completed, people will have an alternative to hunting for a place to park along Hanover Street near the Battleground Athletic Complex.
“In the spring, traffic is heavy over here with practice and games,” said Richard Blair, UMW’s facilities director for landscape and grounds.
The eastern bluebird is a small thrush noted for the brilliant royal blue on its back and head, and warm red-brown on its breast. Its population plunged in the early 20th century after non-native house sparrows and European starlings were let loose in New York by Eugene Schieffelin, an American amateur ornithologist and Shakespeare fanatic.
“He wanted to introduce the birds in Shakespeare,” Little said.
Like bluebirds, both of these invasive species are cavity-nesters. They’re also more aggressive than bluebirds, and began taking over the natural nesting cavities that bluebirds and some other native species preferred. They may even kill adult and nestling bluebirds, destroy their eggs or drive them from their nests.
Organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society and affiliates such as the Virginia Bluebird Society have stepped in to help halt the bluebird’s decline through education, promotion of artificial nest boxes and establishment of bluebird nest box trails, which are protected and monitored by a network of volunteers.
The Virginia Bluebird Society has installed 134 nesting boxes alone in Fredericksburg and Stafford County, including 15 on UMW’s main campus. Last year, 226 bluebirds, 23 chickadees, 129 tree swallows and 32 wrens hatched in those boxes had fledged, Little said.
Last Thursday, Mike Worsham, who monitors the trail that includes the nesting box behind the University Tennis Center, unscrewed the side of the box and used a small hand mirror to check on the chicks. Four tiny, nearly naked babies weighing about a third of an ounce each were huddled together inside the nest.
They’ll sprout feathers and be ready to fledge by the time they’re 17 to 21 days old. Once they do, the nesting box will be moved to a new spot and monitored.
Bluebirds can raise up to four clutches of eggs per year. The babies in this box are the second clutch raised there this year. The first had five babies, and all fledged.
Bluebirds in this area don’t migrate. Little said that it’s possible that all nine babies and their parents could find the box in its new location and huddle together there during the winter.