Prairie Ridge New Home to Bluebird Trail

Woman with a bluebird house

Prairie Ridge has experienced significant growth and a number of improvements over the past few years, and spent much of 2019 welcoming new residents into the beautiful new spaces throughout its campus. This spring, the campus has had luck attracting a few more new residents.

“We’re not birders, we just love birds,” says Val Van Winkle of her and her husband, Tag. Val and Tag moved from their home in Illinois to The Grasslands at Prairie Ridge last June. The couple had volunteered with the Forest Preserve in Lake County, Illinois before moving, and had monitored 14 bluebird boxes as part of their work with the organization.

Bluebird populations have been on the decline since the 1960s, with their habitat disappearing as a result of land development and modern farming practices.

Despite being native to our area, they and other cavity nesters have been pushed out by more aggressive bird species, including house sparrows and starlings. Bluebirds play an important role in protecting crops from insects, who make up two-thirds of their diet. Some farmers place bluebird boxes around their fields so the insects can be preyed upon, instead of destroying their crops. To encourage and facilitate their population, many communities and individuals now set up bluebird nesting boxes.

“This is such lovely country up here,” Val says. “Chris Neumann (Prairie Ridge’s Horticulture and Landscape Manager) has created beautiful landscape design for all kinds of pollinators — birds, butterflies, and bees. We have the prairie on the east side of our campus, lots of flowers, lots of trees, and the ponds.”

Chris has created beautiful landscape design for all kinds of pollinators - birds, butterflies and bees."

After moving in, Val noticed there were some old nesting boxes along the border of the prairie, but they hadn’t been maintained. Wanting to encourage nesting, she reached out to Chris, who thought establishing a bluebird trail was a great idea.

Val pitched her idea to the Prairie Ridge Grounds Committee in September 2019. The concept was warmly received, especially by the Handymen’s Club, who were eager to help with the project. She then reached out to the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin (BRAW), whose president happens to live in Madison. The president came out to the campus to look at the grounds and spoke with the Handymen’s Club about construction of the boxes. It turned out that a resident had already constructed several boxes and had them in storage, so those are the boxes that were used.

“We just had to buy the posts and predator guards, and we were all set,” shares Val.

The boxes needed to be placed 100 yards apart, which meant that the campus was able to house seven boxes. With Chris’ help, Val was able to map out where the boxes would be placed. The boxes are set up along the paved walking path that encircles that campus perimeter. They’ll be monitored, and the data collected will be sent to BRAW at the end of each season.

The efforts did not go unnoticed this spring. Several bluebirds have been seen since April, as well as tree swallows and wrens. But it was chickadees who were the first to lay claim to the boxes, building nests in two of the seven boxes. Turns out, the early bird gets the box!

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