For the last 35 years, Al Larson has been helping bluebirds thrive in Idaho. He loves bluebirds. He’s known around birding circles as Idaho’s “bluebird man.” “That’s what they call me. I haven’t sprouted wings yet,” Larson chuckles.
Larson's work to help Idaho's bluebird population by putting in nest boxes is the subject of a new documentary. His story caught the attention of Wild Lens, a nonprofit group that brings biologists and filmmakers together. Director Neil Paprocki and Producer Matthew Podolsky were soon spending time with Larson out on the bluebird trail. From that experience, a half-hour documentary was born.
Larson monitors and maintains hundreds of nest boxes in Prairie and the Owyhee Mountains, and he bands baby birds to help keep track of the species.
“I got interested in bluebirds by seeing a Western bluebird go into an abandoned woodpecker cavity up on our ranch,” says Larson. “I thought, 'hey if I put some boxes up, I could have a captive bird there to take pictures of.' That was the start of it.”
He started putting those bluebird boxes on his ranch between Boise and Idaho City. Soon, he was putting boxes in the Owyhee Mountains and in Prairie. “All told, I’ve probably monitored as many as 350 boxes during each summer,” Larson says.
Now 92-years-old, Larson is still hanging nest boxes on fence posts, trees, or wherever he finds a good spot. Then he walks along the “trail” of boxes, checking each one to see if there’s a nest, or eggs, or baby birds.
He’s also a "bander," licensed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He puts bands on the all nestlings he finds in his boxes. “About three days a week, I’m out chasing bluebirds,” Larson says.
The film takes viewers through the life cycle of the birds, a story told through Al Larson's field work. “It’s a conservation success story,” says Podolsky. The film shows how Larson, and others like him, took up the challenge of helping the bluebird.
Podolsky says the film is a profile of one man, but it’s more than that. It’s a nod toward the future. “It’s important that the next generation steps up and fills those shoes,” says Podolsky. “Al’s still going strong, but he’s not going to be able to do this forever.”
He says when bluebird populations were declining in the 1970s because of introduced species like sparrows and starlings, a lot of people, like Larson, picked up these bluebird trails as retirements projects. Thanks in part to those volunteers, bluebirds are bouncing back.
But, Podolsky says, those volunteers are “reaching this age where they may not be able to do that work for much longer,” says Podolsky. “We need to find ways to encourage the next generation to carry on this project, otherwise everything that was gained since the 1970s could be lost.”
Larson loves to spend time on his nest box trails, checking in on each new generation of birds. He says often, when he lifts the lid of a nest box to peek inside, the parent birds will sit on a branch next to him and watch him work. He now has 35 generations of bluebirds under his belt.
“I just think they’re a wonderful creature to work with. It’s just like an extended family to me, to see thousands of my kids flying around out there in the countryside, it’s just great to know that I’ve had something to do with keeping them out there,” Larson says, “It’s kind of a spiritual thing with me.”
“Bluebird Man” will be shown at the North American Bluebird Society’s annual meeting in Boise. The film will show on Friday at 8 p.m. at the Boise Centre downtown.
The film will air again on Idaho Public Television in July.
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