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for people who care about the West

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. 

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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].