Come spring, a bluebird will probably live there.
And for that, the eastern bluebird can thank Neal, a retiree who decided that humans shouldn’t be the only creatures enjoying the publicly owned golf course 35 miles north of Atlanta. Years ago, Neal spent a winter building dozens of bluebird boxes, leaning over a saw and power drill. When spring came, he and other enthusiasts erected them on poles and trees across the 18-hole course.
Now, the suburban course not only boasts an expanse of green hills that rise and fall like waves, it’s also home to a feathered species whose future once was in doubt.
Neal, 84, didn’t really plan on becoming Cobblestone’s bluebird guy.
“I just wanted to provide the bluebirds a place to nest,” Neal said on a recent morning just cool enough to force most golfers into long pants and nylon jackets. “I’m not really a gung-ho birder.”
Maybe not. But what Neal has done can make even the casual bird watcher get excited.
‘Something about the color’
If you’ve seen one, you know: Sialia sialis is an exquisite creature, blue-winged, with a rose-colored breast. To see one flit from branch to ground is like watching a slice of sky slip from heaven to earth, a flash of indigo.
At one time, sighting a bluebird was a treat. In the early 20th century, bluebirds in some parts of the nation had declined dramatically – a combination of habitat loss and competition from other bird species. Prowling house cats also exacted a toll, as did pesticides.
Bluebirds have since bounced back. The reasons range from the reduced use of pesticides to a growing awareness of the birds, said Robyn (yes, that’s her name) Bailey. She oversees NestWatch, a program that encourages public participation in collecting bird data for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Ithaca, N.Y., lab is an immense compendium of information about winged things.
“There seems to be something about the color that makes them attractive to people,” said Bailey.
She has a good source of information about the bluebird’s progress – her mom, who lives in Phenix City, Ala. “She said they were hard to see when she was younger,” Bailey said. “Now they’re living in boxes in her yard.”
The best estimates place the bluebird population at 21 million or more. That’s a marked increase from a century ago when, according to some biologists’ estimates, the population had dwindled by 90%.
Bailey’s favorite bird? She gets excited when she sees a roseate spoonbill, but admits to a fondness for bluebirds, too.
Gardeners love bluebirds because they gobble up insects. Also worth noting: Bluebirds are prodigious breeders, producing as many as three broods annually. They nest from March through August, with early summer usually the busiest time for mama birds and their ravenous young.
Bluebirds that live in the Southeast tend to stick around year-round; farther north, they migrate relatively short distances.
Credit: Ken Thomas/Creative Commons
Credit: Ken Thomas/Creative Commons
Neal, who cleans the bluebird boxes annually, has learned a few facts, too.
Fact 1: Bluebirds are the original NIMBY — as any real estate agent can tell you, that means “not in my back yard” — where their own species is concerned. If another bluebird sets up a nest too close by, the bird that was there first will squawk. “They don’t get along,” said Neal. He makes sure each bluebird box is at least 100 yards away from any other.
Fact 2: Other birds — the Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch — can wiggle through the 1.5-inch-diameter hole of a bluebird box and settle in for a season of laying eggs. That’s fine with Neal; he’s an equal-avian-housing advocate.
Fact 3: Squirrels like bluebird boxes, too. One year, in an effort to deter the toothy bums from chewing their way into his bluebird boxes, Neal installed metal plates to protect the wood at the boxes’ circular entrances. It worked; score one for the humans.
But the fight against squirrels is akin to mankind’s war with kudzu — turn your back, and the enemy is creeping again. “They’re going to get in if they want to,” he said. “Squirrels are a pain.”
A final fact about bluebirds: They loom large in our culture, popular and otherwise. Some regard the bluebird as a symbol of joy and hope. Or consider “White Cliffs of Dover,” a song that boosted morale in the early days of World War II; it promised bluebirds would return to the famed cliffs facing the English Channel. And what winged wonder did Dorothy mention in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?
Well, it wasn’t the roseate spoonbill.
The golf cart bumped over the trail, recently improved to help the golf course celebrate its 30th anniversary serving Cobb-area duffers. Neal knows this course well. In 1998, after a four-decade career as an electrical engineering technician, he took a job at Cobblestone. He was a course ranger, keeping golfers moving from one tee to the next – golf’s equivalent of a traffic cop. If golfers lingered too long at a hole, Neal would remind them that they didn’t have all day to play.
“I wasn’t always the most popular guy on the course.”
That was OK. A ranger got to play free, and Neal took advantage of that. Then, one golfing day, he had his epiphany.
“I’d seen bluebird boxes at other courses,” Neal said, and he loved hearing their trilling calls.
Why not at Cobblestone?
Neal took his proposal to the club’s general manager, who gave the OK to buy enough wood and screws to make 50 bluebird boxes. Neal visited a Home Depot not far from his home in unincorporated Cobb County to get the goods. The bill came to less than $400.
That was in 1999, as summer waned. When winter arrived, Neal got busy. The table saw in his basement whined. The air was filled with sawdust, the scent of cypress.
In spring 2000, Neal and his “bluebird club” – he and eight other guys who worked at Cobblestone or just liked bluebirds – went to work. They put boxes on poles adjacent to fairways. They affixed Neal’s handiwork to pine trees on the edge of greens. Feathered guests soon began appearing in the shadows where trees lined fairways.
Neal believes he may be the last of those guys who put up the boxes. “I think just about all of them are dead now except me,” Neal said.
The years exacted a toll on Neal’s work, too. The boxes deteriorated in the wind, sun and rain — 33 are left. One of his brothers gradually replaced Neal’s handiwork with boxes constructed of composite material better equipped to handle nature’s cruelties.
When the weather cools, Neal gets busy again. He removes each box’s side panel to clean it and get the home ready for another nesting season.
(A tip for you would-be bluebird boxers: Look out for flying squirrels hiding in a box’s depths.)
He also takes copious notes. Neal has a stack of papers detailing where each box is located as well as what type birds may be living in them. These records date from 2000 to the present.
The golf club welcomes the winged visitors, said Paul Carey, the course’s general manager.
“It’s not been a problem,” said Carey, who isn’t the general manager who OK’d the boxes two decades ago. “It’s definitely been a bonus.”
Golfer Alan Judd, a salesman who lives in Cobb County, thinks the boxes just add to the course’s already considerable appeal.
It’s not unusual to see owls winging from the treetops, or deer nibbling on the edge of fairways, Judd said. On a recent morning, a hawk stood its ground and glared at Judd and his buddies as they teed up on the 16th hole.
“You go out there in the morning, it’s an absolutely beautiful place,” said Judd. “Bluebirds add to the aesthetic.”
Neal gave up golf in 2018; it got too hard to swing a club and keep his balance. His only trips to Cobblestone these days are to check on his boxes, his birds. He prefers to keep a low profile in the visits. Getting applause for building bluebird boxes “just isn’t important to me.”
What is important: memories of Mary, Neal’s wife. She died in 2008 at 67. Talk for a few minutes with Neal and he’ll mention her, their life together, the home they bought almost six decades ago. Their backyard now features bird feeders.
Neal realizes he’s slowed – it’s inevitable, and hard to ignore when autumn’s shadows creep across the fairways. Who will take over? No one has stepped forward.
Until someone does, Neal checks on his boxes, keeps his records and goes about the business of caring for bluebirds.