Eat those bugs

Mountain bluebirds work to gather insects. Courtesy photo

I am entertained by gleeful blue birds and chubby bats.

Truth be known, I’m a bit of a slum lord when it comes to housing for both species. While I do my best to make my brushy draws and timbered hillsides as inviting as possible for the deer and elk, I don’t build them houses. But for the bats and the birds, I actively recruit new tenants and invite new residents to move in after each spring cleaning.

Bluebirds are drawn to the timberline near open fields filled with insects. This is their year.

With a voracious grasshopper hatch and a million micro hoppers covering the landscape, the bluebirds are in a feeding frenzy. My planned birding development has boxes spaced at intervals ever 70 yards. Each box can produce up to four broods per season. It is an integrated community with both mountain and eastern bluebirds living amicably together although the eastern birds are seen as being more aggressive.

Bluebirds in these rare mingled communities have been known to interbreed. The male eastern birds are open to mountain bluebird mates, but they do not live in committed relationships.  Both males and females entertain other birds, and a single clutch might contain a great deal of genetic diversity.

I can’t tell the individuals apart. Once a bird leaves the nest box, they all begin to look the same. I assume they have the same difficulties. The mountain species has the most vibrant males, but they are shy. Their neon sky-blue wings are not marred by any other colors. The less confident eastern birds wear a gaudy reddish vest to draw attention to themselves. I can see why the female birds are flattered by their attention, and they do seem to try harder. All I want them to do is fill my life with color and song while they eat as many bugs as they can pull from my hayfields and grape vines.  

For the most part, bluebirds limit themselves to stalking and eating those bugs they find on the ground. I rarely see them snatching prey from the sky. To fill the void and take out the mosquitoes. I have installed nest boxes of a different sort for my furry flying friends.

The Black Hills are home to a variety of bat species that do not openly pose for photos. I have been on speaking terms with a small tribe that lives at the high school for many years.

Each morning, I stop to investigate their silent numbers and take count of any additions. Once again without antlers or discernable displays of gender, I can’t tell them apart, although I notice which seem to be carrying young.

Bats eat half their weight in insects per night. A nursing female, the kind I hope to be attracting with my bat houses, will eat 4,500 insects per evening. As a boy, I remember being entertained by the sound of insects hitting the charged lights of a bug zapper and being electrified in midflight. Never did I sit near a machine that was taking out anywhere near as many as a single bat. Want more bugs gone, attract more bats.

Bats are committed home bodies. Once they find an address to their liking, they return each evening and if migratory, return each season to the same home. The sandstone cliffs above my house have cracks that harbor even more, but to encourage then to hunt near my house. I have attached a box under the eaves of my garage.

It has remained empty for two seasons until this year. The bluebirds announce their presence with song, but it’s only at night that the bats come out. I noticed signs that some had moved in, and with the aid of a spotlight, I was able to take a brief inventory. There aren’t very many, but I have successfully integrated even more winged neighbors into my insect crowd control troops.

It seems strange that I do battle against the mice that crawl about among the wires of my tractors and trucks but invite another animal of the same size to stay as long as it likes.

The vacancy light is on. I have plenty of room for more hungry bats and bluebirds.

The Speirs family has owned and operated Crow Creek Wildlife Management Service since 1996.

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