Mountain Bluebirds on the Cowboy Trail
Mountain bluebird (Photo by Kate Tucker)
If you have ever taken a drive along Alberta’s Cowboy Trail, you have likely marvelled at the stunning vistas of the Rocky Mountains to the west and been equally as enchanted by gorgeous sun-soaked prairie to the east. Meandering through the Foothills in the heart of cattle country, the sides of this 700-kilometre asphalt ribbon are lined by hundreds of thousands of fence posts.
These posts perform the essential job of holding up the barbed wire that keeps cattle off the highway, but some of them also hold up nesting boxes for a variety of bird species that make their way into Alberta every spring along a migratory highway in the sky to breed, nest, and raise their offspring.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada has helped to protect more than 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) around the Cowboy Trail. These grassland and mixed forest ecosystems help support some of Alberta’s largest cattle ranching operations while providing essential habitat to a diversity of wildlife species.
At a slightly higher elevation with an abundance of open country, treetops, and fenceposts for perching, the Cowboy Trail is the perfect place to spot mountain bluebirds. Historically, the species depended on tree cavities that had previously been excavated by woodpeckers for their nesting sites. As prime bluebird habitat has been lost and converted throughout their range, they have had to rely more heavily on artificial nest boxes such as those that adorn the fence posts along the Cowboy Trail.
Depending on which species they are intended for, artificial nest boxes differ in design and positioning. Factors such as the dimensions of the box, the size of the entrance hole, the direction it faces and how high up it is placed will all impact which species uses the box. Most species using nesting boxes are native to Alberta, but there are some pesky non-native “squatter” species, such as European starlings or house sparrows, that will occasionally take up residence if they can fit through the door.
Keeping the entrance holes small with no perch helps to restrict spring and summer tenants to smaller native species including bluebirds, chickadees, swallows and wrens.
As with all houses, nest boxes do require annual maintenance, and fortunately there are several groups in Alberta who have contributed to the success of the mountain bluebird species across their range by performing these essential tasks. These fabulous volunteers clean out old nesting materials, monitor activity, and repair thousands of nest boxes across the province every year along set routes known as bluebird trails.
Mountain bluebirds are territorial, and their nesting boxes need to be spaced at least 60 to 90 metres from another box. A bluebird trail consists of a series of bluebird nesting boxes and could consist of just five nest boxes, or potentially hundreds. Having a series of nesting boxes in a row improves the ability of the bluebirds to successfully increase their population.
The return of mountain bluebirds each year corresponds with longer days and the first signs of spring; a welcome sight after a long winter! It is no surprise that these little sky sapphires represent joy and happiness in cultures around the world with their bright colour and carefree spirit. This year, celebrate spring by getting out for a hike in the Foothills or enjoy the stunning scenery with a drive along the Cowboy Trail. Keep your eye out for a flash of blue, it just might be a mountain bluebird gliding along a bluebird trail!
*Please note that permits are required to clean out nest boxes or handle wild birds, nests, or eggs. If you are interested in learning more about mountain bluebirds or getting involved with building nest boxes, monitoring a bluebird trail, or learning more about nest box projects, please contact one of the licensed nest box monitoring groups in Alberta or your local chapter of the Alberta Fish and Game Association for more information.