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Dorene Scriven: The bluebird’s unsung hero

By Katie Friedman

The high summer skies over Silver Creek Township are blessed with a bounty of eastern bluebirds, due in no small part to the fastidious efforts of Dorene Scriven – a local treasure and one of the specie’s staunchest defenders.

Today, there are still many people who have not had the pleasure of actually seeing a bluebird with their own eyes. But a pleasure it is, as much for the striking beauty of the bird’s vivid color as for the satisfaction of witnessing true evidence of one of nature’s best comeback stories.

A member of the thrush family, the bluebird has never been as common in these parts as its cousin, the robin. But until the 1930s, they could be found in most rural settings, which accommodated the cavity-nesting insect eater with a variety of natural food and housing.

Contributing to their demise in the latter part of the 19th century was this country’s introduction of two formidable avian enemies: the house sparrow and the European starling. In the 20th century, pesticides were also partly responsible, as well as the invention of the chainsaw, which contributed greatly to the eradication of deadwood that had formerly been allowed to remain standing.

In the mid-1970s, when a quest to revive their numbers first got off the ground, a scant two dozen bluebirds were reported in Minnesota.

Some four decades later, thanks to the dedicated work of a volunteer army that ranges statewide, the bluebird population – and its prospects for the future – have both improved exponentially.


A call to rescue

Known to many as a conservation pioneer, Scriven was among the small band of birders behind that initial rescue campaign. The bluebirds’ plight was first brought to her attention in the early 1970s, when Dick Peterson – the namesake designer of a wooden nest box now commonly used– joined forces with the national Audubon Society’s Minneapolis chapter. Scriven, at that time a member of the society’s conservation committee, eventually became chairwoman of the Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program, a position she would hold for 25 years.

“When we started out,” she said, “I noticed right away that a whole range of people were interested in bringing back bluebirds, from MDs to people who never finished high school.”

 In 1979, the first reports came in, and 22 bluebirds had fledged In Minnesota. By 1983, the number had climbed to 2,545. In recent years, it’s been averaging between 16,000 and 22,000. And 322,304, a grand total indeed, have fledged since the recovery effort first began.


The bluebird trail

Scriven herself can take personal credit for bringing around 4,000 bluebirds to fledging, through the establishment and careful monitoring of multiple nesting boxes on a five-mile trail running the perimeter of Lake Maria State Park.

As she has for decades, Scriven makes a trek down her bluebird trail at least once a week, observing and recording the progress of 49 feathered families that she cares for much as she would her own. It’s a process that begins in the early spring, before the birds arrive, and often before the snow has melted. Sometimes a box will require minor repairs or the removal of would-be invaders. But more often than not, she says, there are happy surprises to be found, like a cluster of newly laid eggs or a fresh brood of tiny bluebird babies. Each new development, bad or good, is carefully recorded, and the entire circuit takes about 4 _ hours.

Nest boxes are best set up in pairs, she explained, one for tree swallows, one for bluebirds.

“Tree swallows don’t compete for food,” she said. “They are aerial feeders, and bluebirds are ground feeders. They help each other protect both boxes. You often see one perched on the other one’s box.”

And that, she says, is why she always wears a sturdy hat while making her rounds, as protective males have been known to dive bomb their greatest local champion.

Now 84, with six joints that have seen artificial replacements, she relies on the use of a cane and the assistance of a few intrepid helpers. Sixteen-year-old Emily Romine of Big Lake helps out with a neighborhood trail near Scriven’s Lake Maria property, as do Jeff and Brandon Stoick, ages 14 and 16, who live nearby. Another neighbor, Ed Boyer, watches several nest boxes on County Road 39, while Bob and Barbara Carnes monitor an additional 10 boxes in the park.

Despite a very late start to the nesting season, Scriven is happy to report that 65 new bluebirds have already fledged this season. And as the summer winds down, the birds are now raising a second brood. She will continue her weekly visits through the end of the nesting season, which she says this year will probably run into September.


A personal reward

The bluebirds’ numbers are strong now, but the species still faces constant threats, and Scriven stresses that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about setting up bluebird nesting boxes.

“There are a lot of people who will just stick a box up and never look at it again,” she said. “And that’s when it becomes a sparrow house.”

A most helpful resource is “Bluebird Trails,” a definitive guide to successful nurturing of nesting bluebirds and their young. Edited by Scriven, the $14 book is available at Amazon and other online marketers. But be warned. The allure of the bluebird is infectious, and has been known to be addictive, as well.

“It’s something one can take on as an individual and actually make a difference, in contrast to a lot of different causes,” Scriven said. “I get a great personal reward every time I open a box. I can see the whole process, from eggs to fledgling. You can take them out and hold them. Little kids get so excited that it’s like Christmas – every time you open the box there’s some surprise in there. One box hadn’t had bluebirds in a long time, and I assumed there were tree swallows in it. But then, when I went to check it, there was a bluebird, with three eggs.”

And for Dorene Scriven, bluebird hero, that is a sight that makes her task worth continuing.


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