Bluebirds don’t care for urban life, so you’re not likely to see one in a city like Lexington. But the colorful sparrow-sized birds can be found flitting along rural roadsides and in fields across Central Kentucky.
Their presence in the state is due in large part to Wayne H. Davis, the retired University of Kentucky biology professor who died March 16.
He was present at just the right time in the bluebird’s long up-and-down history.
There probably weren’t many bluebirds in the Kentucky wilderness when Daniel Boone hiked in. But when people started putting up fences, and fence posts rotted just enough to provide nest holes, bluebird numbers exploded. They were quite common at the start of the last century.
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Then house sparrows and starlings from Europe started taking over their nests. Then cities sprang up, and in the countryside, old posts were replaced by concrete, steel or treated wood.
By the early 1970s, bluebirds had virtually disappeared, and people like Wayne Davis stepped in to help.
Davis began doing research on what kinds of houses attract bluebirds. He tried birdhouses made from plastic bottles, birdhouses with tiny skylights, birdhouses with openings of different sizes.
He had the most success with the ones he made out of old oak plank fencing from UK’s Coldstream Farm. He built them in the basement of his house.
At one point in the late 1980s, he had about 80 bluebird houses left over from an experiment at the farm, so he hung them along the fences that line the Bluegrass Parkway. The birds loved the houses. And they loved the wide, grassy setbacks along the divided highway. He soon had hung hundreds along the Mountain Parkway and Interstates 64 and 75.
I noticed them along I-75 in 1989, found out how they got there and called him because I wanted to write an article about him and the birds. He was hesitant, saying that he distributed the boxes by stopping his car every two-tenths of a mile along the interstate, which was technically illegal. I promised I would leave out the “illegal” detail. I also promised that if he got in any trouble for trying to save bluebirds, a follow-up article would have supporters marching in the streets. He agreed to let me write about him and there were no problems.
I soon found myself calling Dr. Davis for other stories. A question for a science page feature about habits of Kentucky warblers? He knew the answer. The strange white bird that I saw in a flock of robins in the Herald-Leader’s back parking lot one morning? He quickly identified it as a rare albino robin. The worldwide population explosion? He was an expert on that, too, and had taught a UK course on human ecology. Bats? Yep, he had co-authored “Bats of America.” Urban chickens? He had a backyard coop on the next street over from my house.
And I started seeing his name regularly in the newspaper’s letter-to-the editor columns.
He was liberal, calling out Republicans, racists and Ronald Reagan.
He was skeptical of religion and “some imaginary creature in the sky.” (It was an opinion that, as a boy, got him barred from the Boy Scouts).
He was funny. One letter noted that poultry had surpassed tobacco and horses in the Kentucky agricultural pecking order. He suggested the UK men’s basketball dorm should be renamed Wildcat Chicken Lodge.
But most of the time, when the name Wayne H. Davis appeared in the newspaper, it was about bluebird migration schedules, how and where to place a bluebird house, or a workshop where people could get together and build their own.
His obituary in Friday’s paper said that he had placed more than 3,000 bluebird boxes across Kentucky and in several surrounding states. That has not only helped restore a bird species, but brought joy to countless humans who have glimpsed that flash of color on the wing.
So thank you, Dr. Davis. I never see a bluebird without thinking of you.
Andy Mead is a retired Herald-Leader environmental reporter.