The bluebirds are coming back. At least, that's the hope at Pot Spring Elementary School. The bluebird trail has been restored in time for the spring fledgling season, when eggs are laid and bluebird chicks hatch.
The restoration comes thanks to Maureen Larkin, a teacher and naturalist at Baltimore County's Cromwell Valley Park. Larkin's children attended Pot Spring, a pre-kindergarten through fifth grade Baltimore County public school at 2410 Springlake Drive. She lives near the school.
Last year, Larkin said, "I was walking the school grounds and I noticed the bluebird trail boxes on the ground. I wondered what was going on."
If anyone knows about bluebirds, it's Larkin. She oversees Cromwell Valley Park's bluebird trail, which has been actively maintained and monitored for 15 years. With 25 bluebird boxes and a group of volunteers, she watches for nesting activity, sending the count to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, N.Y.
"We've had at least 2,000 bluebirds fledged," she said of Cromwell Valley's trail.
Pot Spring's bluebird trail dates to 2007, when Principal Karen Harris encouraged it as a Green School project. Harris has since left to become principal of Fort Garrison Elementary School, but her initiative took flight.
The trail loops for about a mile around school property. A group of teachers originally installed 15 bluebird boxes on posts along the trail. Each box is set on a 5-foot high pole, to discourage predators, and is spaced far enough away from tree limbs so that squirrels cannot leap onto them.
The Pot Spring bluebird trail turned out to be a popular habitat for the birds. Joy Brown, Pot Spring's math and science resource teacher, said the school was getting at least two to three bluebird families each year occupying its bluebird boxes.
"The bluebirds begin looking for homes [to build nests] in February. They are drawn to these boxes," Brown said.
The students got involved in the bluebird trail. They created notebooks about bluebirds, kept count of the numbers and helped to clean out the boxes in the winter, a necessary chore to prepare for the next spring.
"The goal was to have the children feel part of the trail," Brown said.
Bluebirds are a native species. They are associated with happiness, a myth perpetuated in songs like "Bluebird of Happiness" and "Over the Rainbow" (where "bluebirds fly").
But since the 1970s, the bluebird population has declined by as much as 70 percent, say the experts. Fingers point to two culprits, starlings and house sparrows.
Bluebirds are cavity nesters, meaning they like to build their nests in a hole in a tree or in a barn. During the fledgling season from March to August, a bluebird pair can raise two to four broods.
Both starlings and house sparrows are non-native species, and cavity nesters, too. Not only do they compete with bluebirds for nesting places but they're aggressive. They've been known to invade bluebird nests, smash eggs, kill chicks and take over the nest.
In 2009, the teacher who'd taken it upon herself to look after the bluebird trail left Pot Spring. No one was assigned to replace her. It wasn't looking good for the bluebird trail.
Then Larkin took her walk. She noticed that five of the 15 bluebird boxes were missing. "I volunteered to get it going again," said Larkin, who has since replaced the missing boxes, cleaned out the other boxes and begun maintaining the trail.
The Pot Spring students continued to monitor the bluebird boxes this whole time. In fact, they're getting organized to start monitoring the boxes for this season's fledglings.
"It's a big part of our environmental program," said Jan Anecharico, second-grade teacher, who has a bluebird box in her own backyard.
Fifth-grader Connor McGeehan, 11, visits the bluebird boxes twice a year with his classes, at the start of winter and of spring. "We look through the hole in the front for birds, eggs or newborns," said Connor, who has observed broken eggs and even birds flying out of the boxes.
Likewise, David Durmowicz,10, a fifth-grader, has seen bluebirds nesting in the bluebird boxes on the trail. "I've also seen bluebirds on the playground and the field near the school," David said. "They're bright blue, very pretty."
David said he thinks the trail "is nice for the school, and for the birds, too, because it's a place for them to live."