San Juan Island was chosen as a first stop because of its abundance of suitable habitat — as long as there are nest boxes.

Share story

FORT LEWIS — It was a common sight once, this iridescent cobalt flash of blue.

But the Western bluebird, once a herald of spring, for most people west of the Cascades today is just a memory.

The American Bird Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation group, is working with other organizations to change that by moving about 100 bluebirds from their last stronghold at Fort Lewis to some of their former range, beginning with San Juan Island.

A similar program undertaken in Florida would indicate that about 60 percent of the birds may stay in their new homes and nest, with the help of bird boxes placed and maintained by volunteers. The rest may go elsewhere, or die trying.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

San Juan Island was chosen as a first stop because of its abundance of suitable habitat — as long as there are nest boxes. Bluebirds require cavities for nesting. They lost their habitat throughout much of Puget Sound country as open prairies, clear-cuts with dead tree stumps, and farmlands, with their all-important fence posts, have been lost to development.

Bluebird basics

Sialia mexicana is part of the same family of birds as robins and thrushes. Just 6 to 7 inches in length, they have long wings and short tails.

Coloring: The male has a deep-blue back, a rusty red breast and a white belly. The female is sooty gray, with dull-blue wings and tail. The bluer the male, the more attractive it is to a mate.

Breeding: It’s the male’s job to secure a nesting hole, then entice females with a colorful display that also repels rivals. Females lay four to six pale-blue eggs in a grass nest, made in a tree or fence-post cavity or nest box. Bluebirds won’t excavate their own cavity and depend on finding holes and knots in snags, fence posts or buildings. They also readily use bird boxes.

Habitat: Bluebirds prefer open woodlands, agricultural fields, prairies, pastureland, parks away from traffic, cemeteries and golf courses, provided no pesticides are used.

Status: Western bluebirds are making a strong comeback in population, and are not listed for protection.

Source: The Nature Conservancy of Washington

For more information on bluebirds, including directions for making a sure-fire bluebird box:

But not at Fort Lewis. Off-limits to development for decades, Fort Lewis has become the South Sound’s accidental sanctuary, an island of high-quality prairie and grassland habitat in a rising tide of sprawl.

“You have to be very adaptive; there are a lot of bullets and bombs going off,” said Mason McKinley, Fort Lewis and McChord project manager for The Nature Conservancy of Washington, which is assisting with the project. “But artillery shells starting fires is actually good for us; it burns off the Scots broom. We’ll take every advantage.”

George Walter was one of the first to note Fort Lewis’ promise for bluebirds, all but given up for lost 25 years ago as populations dwindled. But then Walter, now environmental program manager for the Nisqually Indian Tribe, started sneaking onto the base, putting up bird boxes for the bluebirds, just to see what would happen. The boxes were a hit with the birds, which returned year after year to raise their young — encouraging Walter to put up more and more boxes, some 400 in all, eventually with the full blessing of the base. Today Fort Lewis is home to more than 100 pairs of bluebirds — about half the population in the South Sound.

“Over the years, we banded more than 4,000 birds; it is pretty nice,” Walter said. “We do a lot of mindless things to take away habitat for other species. So it’s a good idea to do what we can to reverse that.”

Gary Slater, research director of the Ecostudies Institute in Mount Vernon, was on the front lines of the relocation effort Tuesday: the artillery range at Fort Lewis, where bluebirds ignore the machine guns and artillery fire, and raise their young in bird boxes ringing the firing range.

The first captures got under way this month to hit the three-week-or-so window in which the birds are returning from their wintering grounds in the Willamette Valley and staking out territory, but not yet nesting.

Slater made the captures look easy on Tuesday.

Using a portable CD player and a speaker hooked up just below a bird box on a black locust tree, Slater in no time lured a pair of bluebirds eager to defend their territory when they heard their pseudo-rival just below their box. The male was the first to hit the mist net slung in the flight path to the bird box.

Slater carefully extricated him, then put the bird in a cage on the ground — and thus easily lured the female, who, flying to her mate’s rescue, was deftly captured as well.

Slater held both birds softly — warm puffs of vivid blue, with somber, stoic expressions. Then he gentled the birds into cotton drawstring bags and took them to the back of a waiting pickup. Weighed, measured, banded, logged and soon destined for the San Juan ferry, these birds were in for the ride of their lives.

By nightfall, they would be placed in aviaries in their new home, to feast on crickets and mealworms, and have a few days to acclimate before release.

If the relocation succeeds, birds may be placed next on Vancouver Island, then Whidbey in the five-year effort.

Now it’s Sam Agnew, 70, of Spanaway, who cleans all the boxes at Fort Lewis in the fall, and bands the babies in the spring. “There is something about the beauty,” Agnew said of bluebirds. “You just get hooked on them.” He said he hopes the relocation will succeed: “These are my birds.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.