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The Triangle's bluebird man

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In April, a new couple will move into Grant MacNichols' bluebird box in my yard. My old tenants were carrying bugs to their babies every 10 minutes in the middle of July. Then they moved on, leaving a pine needle nest with one unhatched blue egg.

But recently I spied bluebirds peeking in the round doorway, checking out the property for their return next spring. They paused on the roof to survey our yard by the Eno River. Was this the place for their next brood? Yes, a field with short grass for gathering bugs. No trees too close, so squirrels couldn't reach their eggs. But some trees about 25 to 75 feet away so fledglings could try out their wings.

I met Grant after he read my article about bird watching by the Eno. In his so-called retirement, he contacts people who interest him. He was on the steering committee for the New Hope Audubon Society and, although he claims his work with bluebirds is mostly in the past, he still monitors 18 boxes on the trail at Mason Farm, near UNC's Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.

In 1972 Grant came to Durham from Florida, where he'd done fieldwork for the Fish and Wildlife Service. For 15 years he worked at the National Institute of Health and Environmental Sciences in Research Triangle Park. There he saw bluebirds building nests under the eaves. So after his day's work and on weekends, he installed his first five bluebird houses in the park. Soon he had 30 houses, and at work he became the Bluebird Man.

Grant met the bird expert John Terres in 1981 and now counts John among his many friends. Terres wrote a book about Mason Farm called From Laurel Hill to Siler's Bog: The Walking Adventures of a Naturalist and the very useful Songbirds in Your Garden, but he is probably best known for The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

Terres, with some Boy Scouts, placed the first bluebird houses in the 350-acre Biological Reserve of UNC in 1962. Grant thinks Mason Farm provides a good habitat for bluebirds, and that Terres and the scouts placed the original houses well. He's looked after the bluebird trail on the reserve for 11 years, and he purchases the same bluebird boxes from Fitch Lumber Company in Carrboro. At the age of 77 he still checks the boxes for eggs with only the help of a Scout to steady the stool.

Grant regrets that bluebirds seem to like golf courses, where pesticides keep the grass lush. Bluebirds look for insects like grasshoppers to eat. Our bluebird population also declined along with farming, as old trees were cut down for firewood until few fields and fence posts remained.

But the bluebird population again increased when friends like Grant set out boxes--in spite of European starlings and English sparrows that usurp birdhouses and break eggs.

Bluebirds tolerate the presence of knowledgeable human beings. To check on the birds, Grant taps on a box to encourage adult bluebirds to fly out. He counts the eggs in the nest, or sees sleeping birds around 3 p.m., when the babies take a siesta. Grant once lifted the beak of a sleeping bird, but I wouldn't risk disturbing these colorful visitors.

Grant is delighted by the songs that mention bluebirds, as in "Bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover," or "The bluebird of happiness."

"One thing I haven't done is keep good records," he says. But if you see a bluebird this year, you might thank Grant for his efforts to provide ideal houses in the Triangle's healthy environments.

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