Two mornings a week Louis Nipper hits the Withlacoochee State Trail to check on the neatly painted white boxes he built for the birds. He installs new boxes if he has them, cleans and repositions the ones already in place, and peeks at the new and developing families of bluebirds that — thanks to him — have a place to call their own.
"I keep track of the number of eggs hatched in each box," said Nipper, 86, a longtime nature enthusiast.
"On one trip I see five eggs, and soon I see five little birds," he said, beaming with pride. "And in about 15 days, those little ones are ready to fly out on their own."
Over the past five years, Nipper has built 266 bluebird boxes and placed them along the 46-mile span of the Withlacoochee State Trail, helping to fill Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties with thousands of those lovely azure-winged creatures that were once considered an endangered species in this area.
"A few years ago it was fairly rare to see a bluebird on the Withlacoochee (State) Trail," said Joe Howard, who manages the trail. "Now every time you go out on the trail, you are likely to see a bluebird."
Nipper began building bird boxes back in 2000 to place around his Citrus Hills community in central Citrus County. He also volunteered with the crime watch program and helped with cleanup efforts along the trail. About five years ago he saw a notice posted by then-trail manager Steve Stackhouse, seeking a volunteer to lend a helping hand to the bluebird population. Although these birds can sustain themselves on a diet of worms and other meats, they needed a place to rest and nest.
"The notice said that they needed bluebird houses on the trail," said Nipper. "I contacted Steve, and he really inspired me to get involved."
Working under the guidance of the trail manager, Nipper paints and assembles each of the boxes in his garage. It takes about 10 hours to put together each bird box, a small house made of aluminum, ply board and 2 by 4s. He pays for the supplies himself — about $25 to $30 per project — and also buys the cleaning and pest prevention products he uses to maintain the areas around his boxes on the trail. (Nipper is a retired distributor with ServiceMaster, a parent company for products and brands that include Terminix, TruGreen and Merry Maids.)
"In the past two years, we've raised about 2,500 bluebirds along the trail," said Nipper, a member of the Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee, a citizen support group for the state trail.
And he would know: Nipper keeps detailed spreadsheets that indicate where his boxes are (each is assigned a specific number on the trail), how many birds and eggs are in each, and how many total bluebirds are spotted on the trail each year.
Nipper, a North Carolina native, credits his upbringing on a Southern dairy farm with his love for birds and animals. And the bluebird is particularly close to his heart.
"They're beautiful," he said. "I love their vibrant blue color."
Helping him in the bluebird box effort are longtime friends Barney Barnhart and Roger Williams, who joined Nipper on Monday as they checked on the 23 bird boxes that line the Trilby/Dade City branch of the Withlacoochee State Trail.
"It's a joy to see his dedication," said Williams, "to watch him work."
"This project is not work for Louis," added Barnhart. "It's a joy for him."