We should all be more like ‘the bluebird man’

Meet Al Larsen, a citizen scientist with decades of meticulous records of the West’s bluebirds.

 

Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She lives in Idaho and writes about travel, aviation and birds. 


Each of us holds one or two central truths — bedrock beliefs that influence how we perceive the world. One of mine is that humans have been the scourge of life on Earth. 

It started at age 6, with my sympathy for Bambi. Later, I learned how early humans wiped out giant Pleistocene animals and then went to work killing moas, dodos, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets — the list goes on. Since I’m a human, of course, I share the blame of my ancestors.

If I have heroes, they are the people who buck this murderous tide. Biologists like George Schaller, Alan Rabinowitz and Jane Goodall helped save pandas, tigers, jaguars, Tibetan antelope, chimpanzees and more, along with large swaths of critical habitat. Their work has been recognized worldwide. But I have a special regard for someone who’s unknown to most people: Al Larson, known to his admirers as “The Bluebird Man.”

Al Larson shows off a nest full of bluebird chicks.
Crista Worthy

Alfred Larson saw his first bluebird in the place where he grew up, southwest Idaho’s sage-and-juniper desert. Bluebirds are secondary nesters that rely on cavities hollowed out by other birds. When introduced starlings and sparrows started spreading across the continent, they kicked bluebirds out of their nests. Bluebird numbers plummeted, and Larson, an avid birder and member of Idaho’s Golden Eagle Audubon Society, noticed.

In 1978, a group of concerned scientists and bluebird lovers established the North American Bluebird Society, and Larson was one of the first “citizen scientists” to answer their call. At age 60, when most people start seriously thinking about retirement, Larson started building bluebird boxes.

Now 96 years old, he says, “I never really retired.” Instead, he jokes, “I just changed jobs and went to work for me.” Larson built over 300 boxes in southwest Idaho, setting them up along five different “bluebird trails.” He initially located the boxes well off the remote dirt roads, to make them less visible. Now he places them as close to the roads as he deems safe, and every nesting season, he travels over 5,000 miles to visit the boxes. His goal is to visit each of them weekly once nesting begins toward the end of April. 

Larson records the number of eggs in each box and estimates when they will hatch. Later, he measures each chick from the wing chord to the first joint, thereby obtaining an accurate age. His busiest time of year is usually the second week of June, when the majority of chicks, eight to 14 days old, are old enough to band. One day this year he banded 140 birds, although 10 to 50 is the normal daily amount. Bluebirds fledge at 18 to 21 days, and once they leave the nest, they don’t go back. Larson then cleans out each nest box so it’s ready to go next year.

Over the 36 years he’s donated to this job, Larson has kept meticulous records, so he knows he’s banded more than 30,000 western and mountain bluebirds. He currently maintains 331 boxes, replacing any lost to vandalism, fires or juniper removal. Western and mountain bluebirds once were of “high concern” in this area, but due, in large part, to Larson’s diligent work, they are now doing well.

Self-reliant and frugal, Larson lives alone in his forest home about an hour northeast of Boise. His beloved wife, Hilda, passed away in 2014, but he doesn’t lack for company; Larson’s yard is always filled with birds. 

Western bluebird.

Larson stopped driving a couple of years ago, so now one of his good friends, Boyd Steele, generally helps out. Otherwise, former Golden Eagle Audubon Society President Pam Conley is Larson’s “bluebird dispatcher,” arranging drivers. Current president Liz Urban says the group is committed to seeing the bluebird trails maintained into the future: “We offer to reimburse any volunteers for their gas expenses while working on the project.” She adds that Chris McClure, a member of the board, has gotten Larson’s giant dataset entered into a single database, so researchers can analyze population trends and other data into the future.

For now, Larson loves making his bluebird rounds. As he says in the short film Bluebird Man, “I enjoy the sounds, the wind in the trees. I’ve had a curiosity, a passion for wildlife. That’s sort of been a religion for me; it’s just what I believe in, what I want to be part of.”

Al Larson is an inspiration. He makes me want to discard my misanthropy and be part of a solution. If bluebirds could speak, they’d thank him, too.

To learn more about bluebirds, visit Bluebird Man and Golden Eagle Audubon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.