Eyes In The Sky
Fredonia Couple Maintains Local Bluebird Habitats
FREDONIA — “The bluebird carries the sky on his back.”
These were the words written in the personal journal of poet Henry David Thoreau as he described the bluebird in May 1852. The Eastern Bluebird is also the state bird of New York and prominent in the eastern United States.
Even though the bluebird has been used as a subject of art, poetry and similar works, their population in numbers has not always been a sturdy one. From the early-to-mid-1900s, the species experienced a severe decline as a result of a shortage of nesting locations. In the case of bluebirds, that was their habitat of dead trees, fence posts and similar locations. In addition, the species also was competing for nesting locations from non-native species such as House Sparrows and starlings and was affected by pesticide use.
As a result, their numbers had severely declined by the 1950s and 1960s. In 1982, the New York State Bluebird Society was founded. Today, their numbers have grown substantially with a 70% increase between 2000 and 2005, according to the organization’s website.
One Fredonia couple has been maintaining bluebird habitats and promoting the species for 27 years.
John and Bev Ruska have been watching, attracting and maintaining various bird species on their Fredonia farm since retiring from their teaching and counseling positions at the State University at Fredonia and the Dunkirk School system. While they enjoy bird watching, the species they enjoy watching the most is the bluebird.
But while they are currently active members of the New York State Blue Bird Society, their involvement with bluebirds began two decades before their retirement.
Both had equally been interested in nature growing up in Erie, Pa. Bev Ruska especially remembers being interested in birds through her time with her local Junior Audubon Society.
“I would get pamphlets, color photos, etc. and I used to draw them. I made numerous drawings as a child,” Bev Ruska said. “That got me going and it took me years before I even saw some of these birds. I didn’t see a lot of the birds I drew until I was an adult.”
Today, Bev Ruska describes herself as an avid bird watcher who can quickly point out differences in species, gender and other characteristics.
“I spend more time observing,” she said.
In 1972, Bev Ruska was teaching an art class at SUNY Fredonia. The project that day was focused on nature. Initially, she posed the idea to her class that they had never seen the bluebird because of their then small population.
“She told the class you have never seen the Eastern Blue Bird it’s the state bird, and one student said ‘yes I have,'” John Ruska said.
The student then told Bev Ruska about her farm on Whitaker Road in Fredonia. There the student’s family showed her where the birds where nesting and how they were living on the property.
It was during this time that Bev Ruska showed the location to her husband. From there, his love of bluebirds began.
Unknowingly, the property would play an important role in the Ruskas’ retirement.
Twenty years later in 1992, two events took place that would further instill the couple’s involvement with preservation of the bluebird. The first took place out of state in the Bentson-Rio Grande River State Park in Mission, Texas, during a birdwalk tour the couple took.
“The woman who was running the bird walk asked the people to introduce themselves and where they were from. When she came up to me she asked how far I was from U.S. 20,” John Ruska said. “I said I live about a mile and a half and why. And then she asked, ‘are you a member of the New York State Bluebird Society.’ And I said what’s that?”
John Ruska later learned that the woman asking him the questions and giving the tour was the membership chairwoman of the society at the time. At the same time, John Ruska also learned that in referring to U.S. 20, the chairwoman was describing the abundance of bluebirds surrounding that roadway across New York state. The trail was established by society member Ray Briggs in 1993. The Ruskas eventually joined the society in 1994 and now maintains that trail from Silver Creek to the Pennsylvania state line. As such, there are 35 separate sites that the Ruskas maintain on their segment.
The second event in 1992 was the purchase of their current home.
“The property had good bluebird habitat,” Bev Ruska said. “The people who owned it before were caring for bluebirds. They knew what to do, they had the houses up and we have had them every year since.”
In addition to being an established habitat for blue birds, the property also contained open space which is their preferred location.
It wasn’t until later that the couple learned that there home was on the same property that Bev Ruska’s student showed her in 1972. In addition, it was also another student that informed Bev Ruska the property was for sale.
“It took us a few weeks to realize it was the same farm,” Bev Ruska said.
On a daily basis, the couple believes that in addition to bluebirds there are between 45 to 50 bird species on the property at anytime of the year. Bev Ruska that the majority of these numbers are contributed by migrating birds that rest on the property. Among the species that Bev Ruska cites are cardinals, blue-jays and downy woodpeckers.
When they are not watching birds on their property, the Ruskas also help maintain the same section of Route 20 region that John Ruska was told about originally. The section includes Silver Creek south to the Pennsylvania state line. The Route 20 trail spans across New York to the state border with Massachusetts.
The couple also maintains sites around Chautauqua County including Gratiot Point in Dunkirk and sites on privately owned land. In maintaining their sites, the Ruskas use specially made birdhouses with holes and spaces that bluebirds prefer to nest in. They also used carved-out decorative gourds to create their own birdhouses.
John Ruska also gives presentations on bluebirds to various organizations in the county. The couple has also traveled abroad to visit birds in other countries and helps maintain the habitats of other bird species.
To learn more about bluebirds and how to help preserve the species, visit the New York State Blue Bird Society at http://nysbs.org/