Bluebird Banding

The Burchick Family moved to rural residential Clarksville in Howard County 21 years ago.  Upon arriving, we did not realize that we inherited Mark Wallace, a volunteer bluebird steward that came with the property.  The previous landowner maintained bluebird boxes and so do we.


In this photo an adult tufted titmouse on eggs “blows-up” into an aggressive can of whoop-ass attempting to scare away the intruder.  No bluebirds here.  She’s a native, so she stays.

For 34 years, Mark Wallace has managed approximately 600 bluebird boxes, a trail throughout western Howard County, including Clarksville, Fulton, Dayton, Highland, Woodbine, Cooksville and Ellicott City.

With permission of the landowner,  Mark makes sure that each bluebird box he adopts is clean and functional, capable of providing critical habitat for cavity nesting bluebirds.  Mark says that on average he bands between 600 and 800 juvenile bluebirds for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service each year.  Mark has been doing as such for the bluebirds on my property for 21-years now.


Today, I followed along as I have on several occasions to watch and photograph his operations.  I have 10 boxes spread out over seven acres, and I have had breeding bluebirds in two or more boxes every year that our family has lived here.  Mark has said that our property is great bluebird habitat and that my boxes have high fecundity.

Checking the next box, we find bluebird eggs and nearby, watchful adults.


Working down the fence line of my neighbors horse farm, the first box had titmice.  The second box had tree swallows, the third box had bluebird eggs, and then the bluebird box with five young that were 13-days old.  Two other boxes had bluebirds, but which were too young to band.


Looking down into the box, we see four males and one female ready for banding.

All together the boxes, all with one and one-half inch hole openings, have produced house wrens, bluebirds, tree swallows, tufted titmouse, chickadees, nuthatch and flying squirrels.  All English house sparrows have been trapped.  Using a weighted door, repeating trap, I’ve had a few years where we have caught well over 100 house sparrows, all of which were given to a raptor rehabilitator.


Each year Mark visits Chandler Robbins (semi-retired, and member of the Howard County Bird Club) at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, Maryland to pick-up his bands.  Each banded bird is documented using Band-It software.  Each band has wording on the inside documenting the legal authority for the bands, and the visible outside has a numbering system that includes the bander ID, banding location by latitude and longitude and other particulars.


I usually get about five years out of each bluebird box, and rotate in new boxes that I purchase from Kendall’s Hardware.  Mark says that he likes boxes that easily open from the top to facilitate banding and minimizing overall nest disturbance.  Working from the top ensures that no birds fall out and onto the ground.


Mark says that developing males have a much brighter blue feathering than females, with a male being shown in the photo.

When Mark works his trail through western Howard County, he often sees bluebirds that he has banded, as most band recoveries are within two-miles of the banding location.  If a bluebird makes it to adulthood, they typically live three-years, but can get up to 12-years old.  Mark had one banded bird recovered from Bishopville, South Carolina, which is the furthest of any of his banded birds.  Usually our birds overwinter here and do not migrate south in the winter months.


The band is clamped onto the bird’s right leg, and Mark documents the five birds and their numbering sequence.  He will then enter this information into the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service database, when he gets home in the evening, I assume over a cup of coffee or a beer.


A male bluebird waits patiently with food for the youngsters, as we finish up with the banding.  Just this week we have had a crane-fly hatch from the two streams.  The crane-flies look like huge, brown mosquitoes, and they bounce up and down, flying just above the grass line, and are easy pickings for the bluebirds and swallows.


Enough already.  He had to eat his insect collection, and he’ll go back to foraging as soon as we leave.

Mark’s 34-years of a local data set has provided the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge with invaluable research.  Much of Mark’s work and observations have made it into various research papers on bluebirds and bluebird habitat management.  Thank you Mark for your many years of on-going service.  Our local bluebird populations are sustained through your efforts.

As I walk through my fields and streams each spring, I will always see the annual return of kingbird, orioles, swallows and purple martins.  When I mow the fields, I always have opportunistic tree swallows (white chest) and barn swallows (brown chest) feeding on the wing, following my tractor, which I enjoy.


Yesterday morning I photographed these three tom turkey along the edge of my low field, as they worked the riparian forest edge for breakfast.  Click the photo to enlarge it and see the detail of color in the feathers.  A beautiful bird!