By Gina Gerken, NestWatcher and community leader
In 2003, my husband, kids, and I moved to a ponderosa pine forest community in Castle Rock, Colorado. I had always enjoyed birds and bird watching, but at this time of my life birding was only an occasional hobby for me. We arrived in Castle Rock only to discover our new stucco home being wildly attacked by a merry band of Pygmy Nuthatches. The tiny “nuthatchers,” as the neighbors called them, were drilling holes on two sides of the house and loudly socializing as they drilled. I was both mesmerized and horrified, watching a snowfall of styrofoam falling from stubby beaks poking out little holes. I soon discovered that many others in my community were plagued with the same problem, and due to worries of mold and expensive stucco repairs, neighbors were on the warpath. Contractors were apparently continually filling holes only to have the determined birds immediately begin to re-drill. I feared the holes would be filled during the nesting season with young birds inside. Thus, I became obsessed with learning how to solve this problem and to figure out a way to coexist with these incredible little stinkers.
Unfortunately in 2003, little was being discussed on the internet regarding Pygmy Nuthatches, and I was having no luck at first finding good information. I finally contacted Denver Audubon and was introduced to the wonders of The Cornell Lab. Thanks to learning everything I could about this complex little bird, especially why they were so highly driven to have cavities year-round for both roosting and nesting, I developed a plan of action. I figured out a way to put appropriately-sized nest boxes in ideal spots. I hung boxes high, where I could easily access them by opening windows. Oftentimes I was able to hang them directly over an actual hole that was in process, knowing it was a time of year when the birds were neither nesting nor having to deal with cool temperatures. I was incredibly lucky, too. Literally within an hour of completing my project, nuthatches were going in, out, and all over the boxes. Over the next few days, they continued to explore their new potential homes and the drilling slowed greatly. It wasn’t long before I noticed two of the boxes in particular were already being used for nighttime roosting.
A few weeks after initially hanging boxes, we filled the holes that the nuthatches had drilled. I expected to have at least some initial re-drilling, but was totally surprised to have absolutely none. The birds seemed to have completely transitioned. We never again saw a hole, and the boxes were used for years. My kids especially loved watching out windows at dusk to see little Pygmy Nuthatches disappearing inside one-by-one to sleep! Without all the in-depth information I had gathered from Cornell, I’m not sure I would have had the success that I did working through this issue.
Because of my nest box success, I felt compelled to share what I had learned. I wanted to help others, both humans and birds, so I approached our local newsletter editor and offered to write an article. Thus began my first community involvement with bird education. Soon, I was making house calls to give suggestions to those having nuthatch issues. I also began adding more nesting boxes to the sides of my house for other birds. At one point, I had every cavity-nesting bird species known to our area (sometimes multiple pairs on opposite sides) either in a box on my house or in my yard, including Northern Saw-whet Owls! I had fun bringing groups of people to my property in late spring to see all the nesting birds. I was also asked to write more articles on birds for our newsletter, which I continued to do for 15 years.
From there my involvement blossomed into a role on the Wildlife Committee of our HOA, which was formed to educate residents on how to coexist. I eventually became the committee chair and served for many years. I used committee funding to organize events to help educate our residents on the importance of each species and how we needed to behave to best preserve them. I brought in speakers, organized events (especially for kids), and led nature walks.
In 2006, I used Wildlife Committee funds to install a 75-box bluebird nest box trail throughout the community. Yet again, I used Cornell resources to educate myself on cavity-nesting birds that might use the trail. For 12 years, I managed the trail and did data entry through NestWatch. It was extremely satisfying knowing that over 3,000 secondary cavity-nesting birds had fledged from our boxes and at the same time we had educated many resident volunteers as well.
This past year, my husband and I decided we were ready for a new adventure and moved from Colorado to Southern California. While I will miss all that I came to love in the natural world of Castle Rock, it is exciting for me to discover a new ecosystem and to be introduced to new “life birds.” Thank you so much to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for giving me the resources to help myself and others learn about our amazing birds! Changing the behavior of one person to save the life of one bird—it makes it all worthwhile.