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Getting their wings

The bird population of Harrison Hills Park is getting increasingly colorful. Special houses for Eastern bluebirds and purple martins have been installed as a part of the ongoing effort to improve the 500-acre park.

The project began last spring — 12 cedar nesting boxes for the bluebirds were made by 81-year-old Hubert Kamer, of Fawn. An avid birdwatcher, Kamer saw an ad for the boxes that the Friends of Harrison Hills Park had placed in the paper, and was delighted to contribute.

“My neighbor had bluebirds in his yard last year, and I enjoyed seeing them,” Kamer says. “I have a house for them in my yard, but I’m just getting sparrows in mine.”

Twenty-six more of the boxes were built and installed by a local Cub Scout troop. It was only two weeks after their installation that the first Eastern bluebirds were spotted, nesting in the two boxes closest to the entrance of the park, the start of an estimated 40 new bluebirds hatched in the park last year. This year, Patrick Kopnicky, chairman of the Friends of Harrison Hills Park, hopes to see purple martins, as well.

“They’re very friendly birds, and fun to watch. They tend to stay in the areas of their houses and put on aerial displays,” Kopnicky says, “They’re constantly in motion.”

Eastern bluebirds, with their bright blue backs and orange bellies, and purple martins, large birds with deep purplish-black plumage, are perennially popular with birdwatchers. Both also are selective in where they settle. The most important components to attracting bluebirds• The right kind of nesting boxes, and location.

“They’re kind of peculiar,” Kopnicky explains. “Their habitats are limited to edges — meadows on treelines, for example.”

Purple martins are trickier to attract, and difficult to maintain. They are highly sensitive to weather conditions, and will die if they return north too soon. Their habit of perching on top of their houses also makes them prime targets for hawks at dinnertime. The houses must be installed in large open areas where they can see predators coming from a distance.

Purple martins live in colonies, so each house has 16-24 compartments. When one colony grows too large for its house, the birds start exploring the area for a place to expand.

“We’re counting on them needing to leave an old location and come to the park, so we’re not sure we’ll get them this year,” Kopnicky says.

Two purple martin houses were installed this spring. There are no signs of the birds yet, but Kopnicky remains hopeful.

Harrison Hills Park is part of the Audobon Society’s Important Birding Area Number 22. One of 80 in Pennsylvania, IBAs are protected sites deemed critical to birds. Perched on a cliff and surrounded by natural boundaries to development, the park offers a haven to more than 180 bird species. Bluebirds are its most recent addition.

“When we started Friends of Harrison Hills Park two years ago, in our very first meeting, we made a long list of items we felt were needed to improve the park,” Kopnicky says. “Bluebird nesting boxes were very high up on the list.”

The boxes require regular maintenance, needing to be checked every two weeks to make sure other birds haven’t gotten into them. Starlings, wrens and titmice will simply take over the boxes, but the English sparrow will actually kill the smaller bird.

There are 36 nesting boxes in the park, watched over by volunteers who “adopt” the project, helping catalog the park’s bluebird population, checking up on the boxes once a month and making sure that they’re clean.

This kind of community participation is exactly what the friends of the park were hoping for when the project began.

“We were hoping someone from the community would come pitch in, and they did,” Kopnicky says. “And they’re still coming.”

Additional Information:

To help

To become part of the Friends of Harrison Hills Park, call or visit the Web site .


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