The bluebird carries the sky on his back. — Henry David Thoreau
Next time you see a bluebird along a country road or interstate, throw a little bit of good will toward Wayne Davis.
Davis, who taught at the University of Kentucky from 1962 to 1994, was instrumental in placing 3,000 bluebird houses all around Kentucky. For his efforts, Davis just received the ninth annual Stuart Butler Memorial Award from the nature advocacy organization Kentucky Heartwood. Butler was a founding member of Kentucky Heartwood.
Davis grew up in West Virginia and was, for much of his career, a scholar of bats and other small mammals. But in the 1960s and 1970s, he began to study the problem of re-establishing bluebird populations.
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You might not think of bluebirds as an indispensable part of the ecological fabric of the commonwealth, but Davis did, going so far as to gauge their reaction to a variety of sites, including strip-mined land, which the bluebirds liked, although Davis noted that they also liked land where crops had been grown. A key point to both seems to be the availability of a perch from which to search the ground for insects and other food.
They had thrived before 1900, nesting in tree trunk holes and fence post cavities in a more rural environment. Their population was stymied when imported house sparrows and starlings took to the commonwealth like kudzu to a scraped hillside. Sparrows and starlings ran off the bluebirds, bullying them out of the areas they once inhabited.
The birds took a particular hit after the great blizzard of 1977-78.
Davis studied the nesting habits of all three types of birds. He designed a birdhouse that was unique to a bluebird's needs and not so convenient to other birds: a rectangular horizontal slit on a shallow box, placed lower to the ground than sparrows and starlings liked.
If you see one today, it mighty look like a weather emergency call box from a world before cell phones.
Davis began by hanging 60 bluebird houses along the Bluegrass Parkway. He then hung 600 to 800 along the Mountain Parkway and Interstates 64 and 75. The birds like areas that are open and grassy, and they tend to avoid suburbia and cities but are happy along roads.
By 1989, bluebirds were making a comeback in Kentucky.
If you aren't a bird watcher, you might confuse the bluebird with the blue jay. Nationalgeographic.com notes that blue jays are bigger, about 10 to 12 inches, compared with about 7 inches for Eastern bluebirds. The two also have different calls, with the "jay" for the bluejay and "too lee" for the bluebird.
Tim Williams, former manager of Buckley Sanctuary in Frankfort, recalled roaming the property with Davis just a few years ago, when Davis showed him how to place warbler boxes made from Metamucil containers and empty half-gallon orange juice receptacles.
Davis would also make an annual visit to clean out the bluebird boxes.
"He's run all over those woods with me about once a year, in the spring," Williams said. "We'd go down along the river, across the dried-up creeks, climbing over logs. He would outrun me."
Davis, 82, doesn't spend a lot of time chasing bluebirds these days. He spends most of his time at his south Lexington home, where he lives with Shirley, his wife of 57 years. A chunky yellow cat called Tigger likes to curl up in Davis' lap.
Three adult children live nearby.
The two met, according to a 2002 Herald-Leader article, in 1958 at a singles event in Minneapolis where Davis was attending the University of Minnesota.
"Wayne Davis bought my box lunch," Shirley said, "And as he came toward me holding the lunch high, I said, 'Look no further,' and he never has for more than 40 years.'"
In his book Bluebirds and Their Survival (University Press of Kentucky, 1995, with Phillipe Roca), Davis described the tiny birds as being tame, almost pet-like, in their demeanor.
"Bluebirds ... are nearly domestic. Several times I have had a pair watch me erect a nest box and come down to inspect it as I was walking away. They seem to expect people to provide nest sites, and they do not object to one's checking on their nesting progress.
"Bluebirds will often sit peacefully on a wire and watch a person open a box to inspect their nest. ... It seems as if the bluebirds are aware that a person is checking on their welfare."