CG | When I was a kid in the early 80s, Pop and I used to walk the property at his fish cabin on Lake Jordan, checking the bluebird boxes. If I’d unwisely chosen to go barefoot on one of our forays, I’d find myself anxiously threading my way between pine cones, fire ant hills, and thistle while my maternal grandfather strode ahead across the kelly green St Augustine grass.
I specifically recall two boxes near the southeastern shoreline of the property, where a haphazard combination of rip rap and a slowly collapsing cinder block wall tentatively held erosion at bay. Pop would gently unscrew the lid on top of the boxes and lift me up so we could quietly peer over the top together and see what was going on.
Sometimes there would be little chicks in there. We’d gaze at them reverently while fretting that perhaps we’d upset the natural order by peeking in on them. Sometimes there would be downy grey fluff tangled among freshly abandoned egg shells. Sometimes there would be nothing more than an abandoned nest of grey pine needles. And sometimes, there would be a big fat snake.
Pop’s interest in building and putting up bluebird boxes sprang up in the late 1970s, right around the time the practice was being encouraged by conservation agencies. The U.S. bluebird population was on the decline throughout the 1900s due to pesticide use and habitat loss, with extinction expected before the end of the century. The bluebird has made a marked comeback since then, and nesting habitats provided by bluebird boxes are believed to be one of the main causes of this turnaround.
The boxes themselves were utilitarian, knocked together from scrap wood lying around the low-slung workshop Pop had constructed in his backyard in the early 1980s. The wood was left unfinished, and nails were likely to be mismatched cast-offs from other projects. The boxes bore no ornament save an embossed stamp of his initials, “JLR Jr.” At some point, Pop realized the redwood boards commonly used in privacy fences could easily be repurposed to build bluebird boxes – after that the appearance of his boxes was more uniform, though no less practical-minded.
My Mom is certain my brother and I must have helped him make some in with the circular saw. My memory of the workshop is vivid. It was the kind of place kids are naturally attracted to: an ancient steamer trunk stored under the tall, handmade workbench. The smell of fresh sawdust; a flimsy wooden wardrobe full of old hunting gear. The red bench vise. A cardboard box full of motheaten Remington skeet shooting patches. And though I do remember being in the shop when Pop was working on projects, I don’t recall helping. Perhaps my best memory of the shop is a cold February day when I realized in horror that I’d left my Mego Mister Spock doll too close to the kerosene heater, and his face was slowly melting.
Regardless of whether or not Scott and I assisted in production, the family has estimated he must have made somewhere around 200 bluebird boxes throughout the 80s and 90s. I grew up seeing those boxes in the yards of my family and friends, along Elmore county roads… it felt like my grandfather’s good works in the name of the bluebird were everywhere. He gave free bluebird boxes to friends, family members, civic organizations, and encouraged others to follow his lead. Every box he gave away included a roughly photocopied 8.5×11 on how to build and where to best position bluebird boxes according to the North American Bluebird Society. He’d added his own handwritten recommendations to these instructions, which he’d roll up and stuff into the entry hole to each box.
Today I’m staining one of Pop’s boxes. I must have had it for at least 15 years, maybe more. I dutifully toted it from apartment to rental house to yet another apartment as I figured out what to do with myself in my late 20s and early 30s, carrying it with me like a holy relic, but never hanging it on a tree. It’s been in the garage for many years now, an evocative keepsake squirreled away not unlike the Ark of the Covenant in the last scene of Raiders of The Lost Ark. But as I’ve already noted, it’s an object that was designed to be functional, not aesthetic, and I wanted to finally put it to use.
I’ll give it a coat of linseed oil after the stain dries to further protect it from the elements, and I figure I’ll at least get a few more years out of it that way. My daughter and I will unroll the yellowed photocopy and dutifully scout the yard for a good spot to hang the box, 3 to 5 feet from the ground; 25 to 100 feet from a tree, large shrub, or fence. We’ll consider a raccoon guard, keep an eye out for activity around the box… and above all, we’ll look forward to gently removing the lid and looking for soft, grey fluff.