Man lends a helping hand to bluebirds

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LANCASTER, Pa. -- Dean Rust lives next to the Lancaster Country Club. But he doesn't play golf.

Probably because the retired dentist is too busy monitoring almost daily some 308 bluebird boxes he's strung out in 15 locations in Lancaster, York and Chester counties.

Bouncing along in a golf cart on LCC's 400 acres of former farmland last week, the Manheim Township resident searched for words to explain his passion for the birds in blue.

And why he monitors these "bluebird trails" from early spring through the summer, tapping on the boxes he's made himself and erected, counting the eggs and brood, protecting the birds from snakes, parasitic wasps, raccoons, English house sparrows and others that would do the peaceful birds harm.

"It's just their adoring temperament," he begins. "You watch them raise their family and they're mesmerizing. They're very docile.

"Pioneers knew what bluebirds were and they used them as harbingers of spring," he continues, the accolades rolling out now.

"They're a throwback to a simpler time. They're good neighbors."

This man, who can become almost misty-eyed in his love for bluebirds, never saw his first one until about 10 years ago, when he was 55.

He was visiting a friend in South Carolina, walking in a park. It was February and a flash of blue streaked by. "That's a bluebird!" his friend said.

Mr. Rust was smitten and wanted to see these birds "that carries the sky on his back," as Henry David Thoreau wrote, around his own home.

He knew that populations of bluebirds, a species unique to North America, had suffered as much as a 90-percent decline in the 1960s and 1970s from pesticides, introductions of English house sparrows, loss of natural cavities, shrinking open space and other threats.

He started by cobbling together specifically-designed boxes and placing them in his backyard. Soon, he was handing others out as Mother's Day gifts to friends and family members.

Mr. Rust wanted to check on the success of the strung-out boxes, but he felt guilty just showing up and tromping through backyards.

He wanted a formal bluebird trail that he could monitor thoroughly and check on the birds as they go through as many as three clutches of young.

Mr. Rust was an umpire at a field hockey training center in Chester County. He asked if he could put up bluebirds boxes there. Sure, came the reply and a dozen boxes he put up there was his first trail seven years ago.

He talked to a deacon at Calvary Church on Landis Valley Road about setting up a bluebird trail there. Twenty-six more boxes followed.

He placed an ad in the newsletter of the Bluebird Society of Pennsylvania, offering to set up bluebird trails.

A Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks superintendent phoned and soon Mr. Rust had trails in place at Sam S. Lewis State Park in York County and Susquehannock State Park in Lancaster County's southern end.

Other requests followed and it snowballed from there.

He has bluebird trails in Lancaster County Central Park and various parks in three townships. His customized boxes fitted with various predator controls may be found on the grounds of the Landis Valley Museum.

He checks on most of the 308 boxes at 15 far-flung locations once a week during the breeding season. His trails range from six to 40 boxes.

With a third round of nestings just beginning, Mr. Rust predicts 120 to 130 bluebirds will be brought into this world this year from 16 pairs that call the LCC home.

"We're thankful for him, I tell you. I know the bluebirds are," says Todd Biddlespaecher, LCC's director of golf course operations.

"This is bluebird heaven," Mr. Rust gushes.

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