- Written by Megan Joyce Megan Joyce
When I met Dean Rust at his home to take a tour of his nearby bluebird boxes, he stepped outside and indicated the borrowed golf cart we would be riding on.
I could see him immediately take notice of my lightweight sweater. He expressed concern I would be chilly during our breezy ride.
But the unusually warm late-winter weather made it a pleasant excursion through a scenic golf course’s seventh fairway, which adjoins Rust’s backyard and hosts the 43 bluebird boxes he dutifully attends for two hours each Monday morning during spring and summer.
His quiet observation and genuine concern for my well-being perfectly mirror the detailed care and devotion he applies to the area’s bluebird population.
As president of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania, an affiliate of the North American Bluebird Society with active members in all 67 counties, Rust chairs the organization’s quarterly board meetings, pens a president’s message for each newsletter, and presides over the state BSP conference each spring.
BSP’s mission is to protect, enjoy, and propagate the eastern bluebird, whose population plunged more than 90 percent between 1920 and 1970, likely due to pesticides, changes in farming practices, and lack of nesting cavities.
Since 1978, however, bluebirds have made an impressive recovery with help from citizen-science conservation efforts throughout the U.S. and Canada, Rust said.
“This problem was answered by encouraging people to build nest boxes for bluebirds from coast to coast. And it was successful!” he said.
BSP’s 1,071 members conduct research relating to bluebirds and other cavity-nesting birds, including their food sources and habitats. Members also build, maintain, and monitor bluebird boxes and trails.
“Today in Central Pennsylvania, we have an ever-growing bluebird population,” Rust said. “People are starting to see bluebirds in their yards and farms like the good ol’ times of the 1920s.”
Rust’s favorite BSP “job” is serving as the point person for the President’s Hotline Forum on BSP’s website (www.thebsp.org), where people from all over the country can email him bluebird-related questions.
“This has allowed me to connect with bluebird lovers all over the U.S. … People have even joined our organization from other states via the President’s Hotline Forum,” Rust said. “It seems like I am involved 365 days a year in some way as BSP president.”
After retiring from his general dentistry practice of 33 years, Rust joined his local BSP chapter in 2005 and became its county coordinator shortly thereafter. He describes himself as having been “caught” by the charm of bluebirds.
“I think it is their beauty; soft, warbling song; and their calm demeanor,” he said. “They are also hardworking, dedicated parents when attending to their young.”
Surprisingly social creatures that seem to enjoy the presence of people, bluebirds lay an average of four or five eggs per clutch. After the final egg is laid, the female incubates the clutch 12-14 days until the eggs hatch, usually within hours of each other.
When monitoring his 16 bluebird trails, Rust checks that the nesting boxes remain intact, clean, and free of predators—snakes can wriggle their way up bluebird-box poles and coil inside, as Rust can attest, having been startled by such an unexpected occupant on at least one occasion.
Rust also closely watches the progress of every nest, doing whatever he can to ensure the success of each feathered family.
“I never tire of seeing a neat, cup-shaped nest of white pine needles or grasses and five newly laid bluebird eggs shining back at me,” Rust said.
After the eggs hatch, both parents feed the young and keep the nest clean for another 17-18 days until the babies fledge and can leave the nest. Then, the parents continue to care for the young for another three weeks, teaching them how to forage for insects.
Rust likes to recount the story of one particularly dedicated pair of bluebird parents from the summer of 2015, when the Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament descended upon his neighboring golf course, bringing with it tents, modular trailers, scaffolding, and staging areas—not to mention thousands of people and their attendant golf carts and noise.
Rust grew concerned the hubbub would disrupt or potentially cause harm to the nearly four dozen bluebird boxes he tends to along the golf course.
One July morning, he discovered a sports-news crew had moved one bluebird box he knew contained eggs. He found it about 40 feet from its original location, stuck in the ground along with a rain gauge, all within 2 feet of a modular home. Furthermore, the box was tipped 15 degrees from vertical position.
“After a deep breath, I opened the box to find five bluebird newborn nestlings,” Rust said. “I saw the [mother] up on the corner of one of the modular homes, and she seemed quite relaxed with her new surroundings. I placed some yellow caution tape around the box and rain gauge and breathed a sigh of relief.”
But Rust prepared himself for the worst, wondering if the parent bluebirds would give up on the relocated nest. Two weeks later, however, he came back to five healthy, full-grown chicks inside; they fledged later that day.
“They are truly resilient songbirds. The [tournament] changed the open environment that bluebirds enjoy, hunt for, and thrive on,” Rust noted. “This pair of bluebirds had to adjust to very cramped quarters for just over two weeks to feed and care for their young family of five.”
Rust recently channeled his extensive bluebird expertise into a soft-cover book, The Beloved and Charismatic Bluebird, which he self-published with the help of his son, Shaun. The book is now in its second edition and is available on Amazon.com and in numerous bookstores, including Longwood Gardens’ garden shop and several local bird stores.
The biggest challenge of bluebird conservation, he said, is motivating those who erect bird boxes to maintain them—you can’t simply install the box and let nature take its course.
“They need to become proactive like a gardener is to their garden plot. It takes lots of loving care to nurture plants from spring through summer to fall and then harvest a crop,” he said. “The same is true with bluebirds. It is a hands-on hobby.”
It’s a hobby worth the time and effort, though, and it is easy to get started, Rust said.
“Getting involved with bluebirds is not only a rewarding endeavor from a conservation standpoint, but it can also be an excellent hobby to share with your children or grandchildren while enjoying nature and the great outdoors,” he said.
“My hope is that bluebirds will inspire a new hobby or develop an appreciation for a special creation that God has given us to enjoy while on the earth.”
For more information on the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania, visit www.thebsp.org or call Rust at (717) 669-0167.