Nearly Over the Rainbow : Tiny Town Keeps House for Bluebirds

Associated Press

Birdhouses outnumber people's houses in this "bluebird capital of the world," a tiny community that goes out of its way to make sure that the shy birds keep coming back.

This hamlet of 150 people in the wind-swept Horse Heaven Hills first gave bluebirds an incentive to stay more than two decades ago, and the birds have returned again and again to raise their young--and bring a little extra income to a depressed economy.

"It's a real community pride," said Lynn Mains, co-owner of a restaurant and one of many who help to keep up the birdhouses.

The Bickleton bluebirds are now gathering for their mid-October migration to Mexico or Southern California. The males begin returning in February, often to the same houses, and are soon followed by the females.

Stumped by Lack of Holes

Although the altitude and climate of this wheat-growing region are ideal for bluebirds, their population was declining 20 years ago, Mains said. The birds are cavity dwellers, and there were not enough dead trees or rotted fence posts to house their nests.

Jess Brinkerhoff of nearby Richland realized the problem while camping with his wife, Elva, in 1965. They nailed up a rusty one-gallon can, and it became the first of about 1,500 birdhouses that now fill the town and dot the surrounding countryside.

At first, the Brinkerhoffs were the lone caretakers of the birds, building, cleaning and maintaining the houses. "My wife passed away four years ago, and then the people of Bickleton took over," said Brinkerhoff, 78.

The chief birdhouse maker now is Bill Shotwell, who has built about 400 of them.

"I usually saw out the pieces for 100 birdhouses and drill the holes--and I'm supposed to be retired," Shotwell said.

A Small Migration

Unlike the swallows that return to San Juan Capistrano, Calif., on the same date every year, just a few thousand bluebirds trickle into Bickleton each spring.

But their number was sufficient to lead the North American Bluebird Society to proclaim Bickleton the "Bluebird Capital of the World" in 1983. The Brinkerhoffs also were recognized.

It's not easy to keep bluebirds in the neighborhood. Old nests must be completely cleaned each winter, and the birdhouses need periodic maintenance.

The houses are white and the roofs blue, approximately the shade of the male bluebird's plumage. "The females are attracted to (the color)," Mains explained.

Bickleton hasn't profited much from the bluebirds, mostly because it is so far off the beaten path, 50 miles south of Yakima on a narrow, winding road that climbs steeply to the town.

A few hundred visitors are drawn here each year for celebrations such as the Bluebird Run and the Bluebird Country Christmas.

The local shops offer glass bluebirds and bluebird T-shirts and caps, as well as the plywood houses made by Shotwell. The profits go toward the building of more houses.

And, "each year we have a contest to see who can spot the first (bluebird)," Mains said. "You win a good pat on the back and a cup of coffee."

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