BluebirdersDo no harm - the Art of Bluebirding

Do no harm – the Art of Bluebirding

“Life is short, and the Art long; the occasion fleeting; experience fallacious, and judgment difficult.

Even though Hippocrates uttered these words more than 2500 years ago, they still ring true. Hippocates was a Greek physician we associate with training, ethics and professional ideals. He counseled those who wished to become competent in medicine to reflect and learn, and “bring to the task a love of labour and perseverance, so that the instruction taking root may bring forth proper and abundant fruits…. diligent study is like the cultivation of the fields, and it is time which imparts strength to all things and brings them to maturity.

Hippocrates and bluebirdinghThese words are quite relevant to to the Art of Bluebirding. Often it is hard, if not impossible, to know what the “right thing to do” is. As a bluebird host, I must confess to having made many mistakes. Unfortunately, several of these mistakes have had heartbreaking results: abandoned nests, broken eggs, dead nestlings and dead adult native birds.

The Bottom Line: If you are unsure about whether to interfere – don’t. If an intervention has an obvious chance of harm but a less certain chance of benefit, let nature take its course.

Some of my own worst mistakes were a result of something I actively did, like dropping a Gilbertson box during monitoring. All the eggs broke on impact. Others were a result of something I failed to do, like prevent paper wasps from causing parents to abandon a clutch of eggs about to hatch. Some of these losses were due to inexperience, some to experimentation, others to bad judgment.

Inexperience: I learn I was wrong about something on a daily basis. To combat inexperience, I read as much as I can, and ask questions so I can benefit from the experience of others. I also try to learn something from my own near misses or mistakes, so I do not repeat them. As painful as it is, I try to share those lessons learned with others, so THEY do not have to find out the hard way.

(Please note that I am referring here to honest mistakes resulting from lack of knowledge or experience. I am not referring to acts like removing another native bird’s nest because you only want bluebirds to nest in your box. This is actually an illegal CRIMINAL offense, banned under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.)

Experimentation: When conducting experiments, we must make our best efforts, based on available information and good judgement, to first do no harm.

  • For example, somebody tried putting Plexiglas roofs on a nestbox, in an attempt to deter House Sparrows. Heat from the sun cooked the eggs. There is no need to repeat an experiment like that. This is why I encourage people to report not just on successful experiments, but also on failed ones, despite how embarrassing that may be.
  • There are other occasions where well planned, responsible, ethical and legal experiments are conducted that result in losses. However, in the end, the work contributes considerably to our knowledge base. Thus, in the long run, it can be beneficial and worthwhile in that, if the information is shared, it offers a future opportunity to improve nesting success for many other native cavity nesters.

Bad Judgment/Carelessness/Ignorance: Sometimes in an attempt to help, and despite our good intentions, we can end up doing more harm than good. This usually happens from micromanagement, interference, or carelessness. Examples include:

  • removing a nest you think is abandoned when it’s not, or removing eggs prematurely because you don’t think they are going to hatch. Unfortunately this interferene is FAR too common among well-meaning bluebird landlords!
  • attracting predators or attacks by nestbox competitors by putting food on top of or inside a nestbox.
  • not keeping good track of nestling ages, and monitoring after the nestlings are fully feathered, causing premature fledging.
  • failing to monitor an inbox House Sparrow trap hourly, resulting in the death of a native bird.
  • checking a box so often during nest building that nervous Titmice abandon it.

If we do nothing, we won’t make any mistakes. We also will not learn, and probably won’t help many birds.

We will never prevent bad weather or rid the world of predators. Nature can be cruel. Accept some losses as a result of natural processes. They may result in the evolution of a stronger breed or more experienced parents.

We also cannot control what other people do (like letting House Sparrows breed). But we can try to educate them, to increase the odds that they will make informed choices.

I figure the world outside the nestbox is tough enough – if we can help the young of native birds make it that far, it may make a difference. What I find most difficult is forgiving myself when things go badly as a result of a fault of my own.

We put up nestboxes in the hopes of helping native birds procreate. I pray that the good we do as a bluebird monitors offsets our failures. Maybe our errors haunt us so we will do everything in our power to avoid repeating them, or so we will feel compelled to help others.

One thing I do know for sure – giving up when things go wrong is not the answer.

NOTE: Contrary to popular belief, the Hippocratic Oath does not actually contain the phrase “do no harm,” but the medical profession does emphasize this principle, especially when debating use of an intervention with an obvious chance of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.

First and foremost, any actions taken and recommendations made by bluebird landlords or enthusiasts should be designed to do no harm to native cavity nesters. Our actions should promote public knowledge and the welfare, safety and conservation of these birds and their environment, and encourage respect of the law and the rights of others.

Note: I wrote this as therapy, after a particularly painful loss that resulted from my own stupidity.

More information:

…make a habit of two things – to help, or at least do no harm
– attributed to Hippocrates (a Greek physician), The Epidemics, Bk1, Sec.XI


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