A few miles south of Chilili, former geologist Bill Simms and his wife Barbara are doing what they can to help rebuild the Western bluebird population in the East Mountains after the devastating early cold snap in the fall of 2020.
The Simms Ranch covers 200 acres, and throughout that acreage are 50 bluebird boxes of Simms’ own design and construction. Though Simms is also the president of the board for local radio station KXNM-88.7, his full-time job these days is creating and maintaining housing for local bluebirds.
“You can buy readymade bluebird houses off Amazon,” said Simms, but his design was created over 23 years of trial and error, as well as meticulous record keeping.
“The bluebird is about the only species that needs help [building nests],” said Simms. “They can’t—or won’t—nest without a cavity or box. Other birds make use of trees, etcetera.”
Increased deforestation and an increase in pesticide use placed a burden on bluebirds seeking nesting structures and food, driving populations to near extinction levels around the turn of the century, according to the National Audubon Society.
With the birds’ delicateness in mind, Simms began constructing bluebird boxes in 1999, just four years into his retirement. He planted them around his property and began recording data gained by weekly visits to the boxes—data that he shares with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Nest Box program.
Simms produced an impressive spreadsheet that charted his data on the 2021 season so far. On it, information like box number, occupancy, number of eggs in the nest, health of the hatchlings, and overall rate of fledgling success is quantified and color-coded.
A similar spreadsheet from 2020 was also displayed. The two records were visibly, dramatically different. While most of the spreadsheet from 2020 was full of data and colored cells, the 2021 version contained many cells void of any data, and very few colors representing the nesting bluebirds’ eggs.
“In 2020, we fledged 154 Western bluebirds,” said Simms. “We only had five active nests at any one time this year, which implies only five pairs returned.”
The three bird boxes seen by The Independent the day this reporter visited the Simms Ranch were all empty, and only a handful of the bright blue birds were seen fluttering through the Simms’ juniper trees.
Western bluebirds live in the East Mountains year-round; they don’t migrate south in the winter like so many of the other songbirds that exist here, said Simms. Which is why he and his wife weren’t too concerned in September of 2020 when temperatures in Albuquerque plunged from a high of 97 F to a low of 39 F over a period of two days.
“Bluebirds have survived below freezing, snowy weather every winter with no problem,” said Simms. “The weather hovered above freezing for about 48 hours before it started warming up.”
Simms said that when he checked on some of the boxes after the weather warmed, what he found both surprised and saddened him.
“The first box I checked had four dead adult bluebirds. The next box… I found four more. When we were done, we had counted 28 dead,” he recalled.
Though Simms is not sure how many bluebirds were lost in the freak weather event, he said that in June and July of 2020, they had “about 26 mating bluebird pairs, or around 55-60 adult birds” living in the nest boxes.
“Around 21 pairs presumably lost their lives,” he said.
“Even though our bluebirds seemed to be in good health,” said Simms, “we did not realize the toll the drought had been taking.”
The extreme drought conditions that defined much of 2020 had drastically reduced available food sources for the bluebirds, which made it impossible for the birds to build up enough body fat to protect themselves from winter weather before the near-freezing temperatures hit the area, said Simms. Autopsies performed on the birds indicated that they were in starvation mode when they died, he said.
With the monsoon season showing strongly this July, Simms and other bluebird enthusiasts are excited and hopeful for a gradual return, “though it will take years,” said Simms.
Another species of bird tracked on Simms’ detailed spreadsheets are Ash-throated Flycatchers. This is because they tend to favor the same habitat situation that the bluebirds do, said Simms, like a cavity or hollow space they can build within, and they’ve returned to the ranch seasonally for years to nest.
“Usually the bluebirds arrive first and have their pick of the boxes. The Flycatchers arrive later and take the ones that are left,” he said.
Though there is generally some dramatic nest competition between the two species, said Simms, there has been at least one occasion where bluebird eggs laid in the nest of a Flycatcher hatched, and the Flycatcher mama kept and fed the foreign baby birds as her own.
Bewick wrens and titmice have also occasionally taken up residence in the Simms’ bird boxes. Birds like scrub jays, black-headed grosbeaks, house finches, cowbirds, spotted towhees, canyon towhees, pine siskins, and goldfinches also frequent the ranch to feed, he said.
One of Simms’ favorite things about bluebird season is hosting the Thursdays Birders, a group of birdwatchers affiliated with the Central New Mexico Audubon Society in Albuquerque.
At those meetings, Simms delights in sharing with fellow bird-lovers the many things he’s learned over the years.
For instance, “we realized that, with age, the cedar nest boxes turn much darker, and as a result, absorb more of the sun’s rays, turning the insides of the boxes into ovens,” said Simms. He now paints the boxes with a highly reflective white paint, and the problem has been “greatly improved,” he said.
Predators are also a problem Simms has had to contend with. His early bluebird boxes were only about 7 inches deep, which proved too shallow; ravens would stick their heads into the access holes and be able to reach baby birds in the nests at the bottom of the boxes, he said.
“Our predator loss has been going down every year,” he said.
The fact that Simms believes he’s helping the bluebirds return to their prior abundance in the East Mountains is what keeps him motivated, he said. “They seem to show their appreciation by coming back every year and allowing you to check in on them every week without getting excited,” he said.
Simms said that he can recognize some of the returning birds. “The one that dive-bombed your head when you got too close to that particular box last season will dive-bomb you again,” he said.
Simms gives copies of his design plans for building bluebird boxes to anyone who’s interested. One 6-foot cedar fence board from the lumber store is all you need, he said, to create a nesting house for bluebirds at your own home.
“Once you build it, bam! They show up just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
Or, as naturalist John Burroughs once said: “How readily the bluebirds become our friends and neighbors when we offer them suitable nesting retreats!”