Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: In long retirement, Bill Satterwhite turns to bluebirds

CorrespondentApril 26, 2014 

Bill Satterwhite, 94, by a bluebird house he made in the front yard of his Raleigh home. A brown-headed nuthatch visits the box, where she’s made a home for laying eggs.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Charles J. “Bill” Satterwhite

    Born: March 1920, McDowell County

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: Retired chief radiologic technologist, Rex Healthcare; honorary director and co-coordinator for Wake County, N.C. Bluebird Society; founder and coordinator, Bluebirders of Wake County; master gardener emeritus for Wake County, N.C. Cooperative Extension

    Family: Daughters, Billie Jeanne and Peggy; son, Charles; 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren

    Fun Fact: Satterwhite’s street is a popular sledding spot on snowy days. He’s been known to take advantage of its long, gentle slope. In one treasured photo, he is shown sledding headfirst down the street on his 90th birthday.

— Bill Satterwhite’s retirement turned from golf to gardening to a singular focus on the royal blue and rusty red birds that nearly disappeared in his lifetime.

Satterwhite recalls seeing bluebirds as a youth in the foothills during the 1930s, when the species thrived. By the 1960s, pesticides and loss of habitat had cut their numbers significantly.

The species has largely recovered with human help, and Satterwhite has led the charge to build Wake County’s bluebird population for more than 20 years. Known as the “Bluebird Man,” he has set up groups of bluebird houses across the county, taught children about the need to provide homes for the birds, and drawn countless others into his addictive hobby.

At 94, Satterwhite still tends to dozens of bluebird boxes and mentors bluebird enthusiasts as a county co-coordinator for the N.C. Bluebird Society, where he is an emeritus director. The society is conducting its annual meeting this weekend. He also formed the Bluebirders of Wake County group.

The birds’ vibrant colors make them easy to love, Satterwhite says, but the draw for him is the bird’s story as much as its beauty – a treasure that was almost lost and remains only with human effort.

Joye Stephenson, a retired state employee who is now Wake County co-coordinator for the N.C. Bluebird Society, says Satterwhite’s enthusiasm for the birds, and his willingness to share his knowledge, have made a serious impact on their populations.

“Bluebirds are the love of my life, and I owe that to Bill,” she says. “If you look at all the bluebird trails in this county, most of them are the result of Bill getting people interested.”

Bored by golf

Satterwhite grew up in McDowell and Burke counties, where he remembers seeing bluebirds at his grandfather’s farm and in the woods near his home.

He was one of eight children and three stepchildren in the household, a large family that had a habit of adopting arbitrary nicknames; a brother started calling him Bill, though his name was Charles. It stuck.

The children spent ample time inventing outdoor entertainment, aided by his mother, who he remembers would craft figures out of the seed pods they gathered from passion flowers.

She also taught him to identify common birds, but such lessons in the ways of nature were brief.

“She didn’t have much time for birds,” he says. “She was too busy sewing and canning and feeding us during the Depression.”

He remained drawn to the outdoors throughout his life, though career and family took precedent starting in 1939, when he came to Raleigh to attend N.C. State University.

He left the university before graduating and trained in what was then the emerging technology of X-rays during two years at a tuberculosis hospital. Next, he got a job in radiology at Central Prison, where he lived on-site – joking with his parents about addressing letters to him there.

“It was a little depressing,” he says, “but I learned a lot.”

He went on to work at Rex Healthcare for more than 30 years, eventually becoming chief radiologic technologist.

When he first retired, he played golf several times a week, but he soon tired of his hours on the green and started seeking out a more fulfilling way to get outdoors.

In 1992, he became part of the county’s master gardener program, which uses volunteers to help homeowners maintain their yards in environmentally friendly ways. One day when he was volunteering, Satterwhite found a bluebird box at a county office building, and he agreed to put it up.

By then, the effort to repopulate bluebirds by providing boxes for them to nest in was well underway. Satterwhite had heard a presentation on the topic by Jack Finch, who led the bluebird effort in North Carolina.

But the idea didn’t grab him until he put up the box and sat down on a rock wall nearby to make sure it was straight. Two bluebirds were already inspecting the box, and the sight stirred him.

“I hadn’t seen a pair of bluebirds in 40 years,” he says. “That got me hooked.”

He started by putting up a few more boxes at the Wake County Commons building in Southeast Raleigh. Then he put a group of them along a trail at nearby Historic Oak View County Park.

Satterwhite has since set up several hundred bluebird boxes at city and county parks, trails, schools, golf courses and other sites.

Most of these are maintained by other volunteers now, though he still visits some once a week through the spring, cleaning them and counting any eggs or chicks; that data is sent to researchers at Cornell University.

No sparrows, please

The drop in bluebird populations was due largely to urban growth and the rise of large farming operations, which reduced the amount of woodlands. The use of the pesticide DDT and competition from invasive species contributed.

Their numbers have reached normal levels, but the bluebird’s existence still depends on human help; the dead trees and wooden fences where they and other cavity nesters build simply aren’t available.

“If we didn’t put up bluebird boxes, there wouldn’t be any bluebirds,” says Satterwhite.

Satterwhite has learned to love other birds; a box in his yard is currently home to brown-headed nuthatches, a species whose numbers have diminished in recent years.

But he can barely hide his disdain for the species that compete with bluebirds for space – particularly the English sparrow, an aggressive, non-native bird that builds unruly, trash-filled nests.

Satterwhite still leads workshops at schools and public events, mounting a box wherever he goes and spreading the word on bluebirds across the county. He’ll sometimes make kits that children can use to build their own boxes.

He experiments with different designs and colors, including boxes bearing the N.C. State logo that he started making in response to complaints when he put a blue-roofed birdhouse at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course on Centennial Campus.

He also fields two or three calls a week from other bluebird enthusiasts, helping them identify nests, keep pests out, place their boxes and more.

He has fun with some of them, including one caller who said the birds kept looking in his box, but not nesting there.

“I told him, ‘Sneak up behind them and push them in,’” Satterwhite says, laughing.

But he went on to commiserate in the caller’s frustration, noting he hosted hundreds of bluebird chicks per year across the county before one ever nested in his West Raleigh yard: “It’s the call of the bluebird where to nest,” he says.

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