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Ronnie Thomas

Bob Johnson Sr. attaches a new bluebird house to a pine tree off the No. 1 fairway at Burningtree Country Club golf course.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Bob Johnson Sr. attaches a new bluebird house to a pine tree off the No. 1 fairway at Burningtree Country Club golf course.

Bluebird man of Burningtree
Decatur resident builds homes for feathered friends on golf course

"What's not to like about a bluebird?"

That's the answer Decatur's Bob Johnson Sr. gave to a question about his feathered friends.

And that was his thought Monday as he drove a golf cart among tall pines on the golf course at Burningtree Country Club in Southeast Decatur. Almost every tree hosts a bluebird house, each "about nose high."

Johnson, 77, built most of them and maintains them all — 87 at last count.

"It's an inherited thing," he said. "Ben Coolidge did it first, then turned it over to Bill Pepler. They're both gone now. I've been doing it the past 10 or 12 years. There's a great bluebird population at Burningtree. Bluebirds have never had it so good."

In the back of the cart were some of Johnson's 19 replacement houses, which he built of western cedar because they're "less buggy." There also were several single-board birdhouse faces he designed to keep the body of the old houses in use a little longer after gray squirrels have chewed at them.

Just as on his birdhouses, the faces come with brass "squirrel rings" he developed for the entrances, to discourage squirrels from attacking them.

And among the supplies are a cordless drill, screws, a long-handled grill scraper that he fashioned into a tool for clearing the houses of old bluebird nests, flying squirrel nests and wasp nests, and a can of insect spray.

Care for a round of golf, you say? Not on Mondays. The course is closed.

Welcome to Johnson's world on a crisp blue-sky day when matches aren't being played and no one yells "fore!" at him or his assistants, Jim Waldrop and Charlie Schooley, who follow in another cart.

Headed toward the first green, Johnson paused at one massive pine in a tribute to Coolidge's craft.

"Ben built that one out of cypress," he said, pointing to the weathered birdhouse, an artistic showpiece against the thick, pine-bark backdrop. "Cypress will last longer, but it's harder to work with than cedar."

The small entrance of another birdhouse doubled in size after gray squirrels chewed away part of the front. They also whetted their appetites by gnawing on the roof.

"They devoured that one," Johnson said. "Let's put up a new house here."

On yet another, the bushy-tailed gatecrashers dug out Johnson's squirrel ring, leaving in place the four screws that held it. He installed a new face, complete with a ring, careful that the new entrance hole matched the old one.

"(The rings) are not foolproof, but they do slow down the squirrels some," Johnson said. "They are just curious. They eat away the entrances to get in there and find out what's going on and leave it damaged. They'll chew anything."

At the next stop, Waldrop loosened a screw at the bottom of a birdhouse, lifted the hinged front and swept out a nest he said flying squirrels made.

"Bluebirds use pine straw to build their nests. See the difference," he said as he held the compacted wad composed of grass, moss and cotton.

"Flying squirrels are the cutest little things, and because they're nocturnal, we rarely ever see them," Johnson said. "At least they have an objective when they nudge into a bluebird house. They don't want to destroy anything. They just want a place to nest."

Johnson believes the men of Burningtree have helped keep the little bluebird from going extinct.

"They used to nest in the knot hole of hardwood trees," he said. "Then folks started cutting them down for the timber. All we've got out here are pine trees. So we thought we'd help them out."

And Johnson amended his statement about bluebirds, adding a couple of negatives.

"They're not really friendly," he said. "They won't come up and sit on your ankle. And during the winter, their favorite food is dogwood berries. It takes them a long time, but they just about strip the trees."

Still, he remains devoted to them and to the game of golf. He built tee boxes for each tee, where golfers have a convenient place to pitch broken tees. He also built sandboxes.

"No one had thought of that," he said. "Golfers can grab a little sand and do their own divot repairs."

Once while at Turtle Point Yacht and Country Club in Killen, he noticed the course had several bridges crossing gullies.

"I came back and built that little bridge," he said, pointing to one he made from weather-treated 2-by-4s.

Suddenly a lone red-tailed hawk glided across the sky.

"We have two of them," Johnson said. "One patrols the front nine, the other the back nine. They swoop down and pick up small squirrels. That's not too bad. They also eat baby bluebirds. That's not good at all."

Eastern bluebird

Size: 7 inches

Male: reminiscent of its larger cousin, American robin, with a rusty red breast and a white belly. Sky blue head, back and tail.

Female: shares rusty red breast and white belly, but is grayer with faint blue tail and wings.

Juvenile: similar to female, with spots on chest, blue wing markings.

Nest: cavity, old woodpecker cavity or man-made nest box; female builds, two broods per year.

Eggs: four to five; pale blue without markings.

Incubation: 12-14 days; female incubates.

Fledging: 15-18 days; male and female feed young.

Migration: non-migratory in Alabama.

Food: insects, fruit

“Birds of Alabama”
by Stan Tekiela

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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