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A hole lotta love for the Western bluebird

Times Staff Writer

Dick Purvis knew that if he was going to bring bluebirds to Orange County, the county would need more holes.

Bluebirds, he explained, require them for nesting, and there aren’t many trees with holes in the county’s developed recreational areas. If you find one, he said, “the ranger will come and cut it down.”

So Purvis, 80, a bird lover since his boyhood in North Georgia, set out to bolster the area’s bluebird population by placing nest boxes in parks and golf courses. And what started as one man’s hobby in 1984 has grown into the 200-member Southern California Bluebird Club, whose efforts last year added more than 5,000 members of the species to the skies of Orange County, making it the state’s most prolific bluebird haven.

At Peters Canyon Regional Park in eastern Orange, Senior Park Ranger Raul Herrera attests to the success of the efforts by the former McDonnell Douglas engineer. The park’s bluebird population, said Herrera, “was just about zero when he started here. He’s brought it back to life.”

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Purvis said he first hung nest boxes in Peters Canyon about 15 years ago. Now his half-dozen boxes there hatch 10 to 15 Western bluebirds a year.

Purvis’ efforts have paid off countywide. According to the spring 2008 newsletter of the California Bluebird Recovery Program, an all-volunteer project, Orange County led the state in 2007 with 5,612 fledglings produced from 1,293 nest boxes.

Second was Merced County, with 3,436 bluebirds produced from 688 boxes. Santa Clara, Los Angeles and San Mateo counties rounded out the top five.

Bluebird club members hang nest boxes 12 to 20 feet high, clear of predators, vandals and sprinklers. They check the boxes weekly, counting eggs and chicks and removing dead birds. Of the 200 club members, about 40 are dedicated nest monitors, Purvis says.

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Although seeing a chick hatch and take wing is the goal, visiting boxes can be rewarding in itself. Sully Reallon, 80, of Capistrano Beach marveled at how people-friendly the bluebirds are. “I can take that box, pick the mother up, count her eggs, stroke her head, put her back in the box and close the door,” he said. “They don’t mind at all.”

The notion that birds and their eggs can’t be touched by human hands “is a myth,” said Reallon, a retired Caltrans worker.

Ninety percent of club members are retirees, he said.

That worries state program director Dick Blaine, 74, of Cupertino, a retired IBM physicist.

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“The big producers,” he said, “are old fogies like us. We have great concern for the future because we’re not getting younger people into the program.”

Although the bluebird project is ideal for students or Scouts hoping to fill a community service requirement, Blaine said, “they don’t persist. They last through the mating season,” then drop out.

Asked why Orange County is so far ahead, he said, “the answer is Dick Purvis.”

Besides being a dedicated leader, Blaine said, Purvis came up with an innovative design for nest boxes that includes a 1 1/2-inch hole, small enough to keep starlings out, and a hinged opening to allow people to reach in. The box is raised in a basket attached to a pole, which members call the Purvis lifter. “With a 6-foot ladder,” the designer explained, “you can’t get them up high enough. This is the only way you can have bluebirds in an urban area.”

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So what prompted him to become the bluebird’s best friend in Southern California?

“When I was a boy I lived on a farm,” Purvis recalled. “All the farmers had bluebird boxes.”

One day while picnicking at O’Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon, he said, “I saw a pair of bluebirds in a sycamore tree and thought, ‘Holy cow, we could have that in Orange County!’ ”

He started with 10 boxes at Anaheim’s Featherly Regional Park “and took off from there.” Each year the bluebird population expanded about three miles and Purvis recruited a few members, who in turn recruited more. “It took me 15 years to reach all the way across Orange County,” he said.

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Purvis also plays bridge, attends church and visits four grandchildren, but he finds time for bluebirds every day. There’s a good reason: The bluebirds, he says, can always use a few more holes.

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marc.olson@latimes.com


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