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A place for bluebirds
Carol McDaniel checks for bluebird eggs inside one of the nest boxes behind her home after returning from the newly-opened Bluebird Nest Nature Center in downtown Darlington. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
DARLINGTON - Sandwiched between a pizza eatery and a Mexican restaurant sits the newly-opened Bluebird Nest Nature Center, a place for outdoor education.

Carol and John McDaniel, along with Sue Cashman and other volunteers, helped get the nature center up and running in late March. The center, located at 308 Main St., will have its grand opening from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Carol McDaniel began the Lafayette County Bluebird Society in 1981 and is currently president. She and her husband drew in people all across the county to monitor and help raise awareness of bluebirds, which were at one time almost nonexistent. In 1976, the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Survey reported four eastern bluebird pairs in the entire state. Carol McDaniel said the population has significantly risen, but she hopes the center will make people more aware of conservation efforts.

She makes trips to state trails by Yellowstone Lake where bluebird nest boxes have been built and keeps track of the birds and their babies' progress. She has numerous bird houses in the yard at her home, and found that the best way to keep predators out of the nests is with flower pots fitted to the poles the nests are perched on.

The McDaniels and Cashman decided to create a place in Darlington where anyone happening by could come in and learn about bluebirds and nature more broadly. The center features several learning stations. A laptop hooked up to headphones plays bird calls, another plays DVDs about the bluebird, and there are numbered animal parts as part of a guessing game.

Carol McDaniel said getting the center up and running took a few months and was pricier than they expected, but she hopes the center will help educate the community.

"We've been pinching our pennies, but we've gotten a lot of help," she said. The center received a number of donated materials, such as tables, chairs and laptops, from banks and private donors.

"John is very good at getting donations," Cashman said.

The center has a number of events lined up this summer, including presentations at Darlington Elementary School, day care trips to the center, weekly nature movies, plant identification workshops, tree identification workshops, fish identification workshops and outings to Yellowstone Lake to view butterflies, fish, birds and anything else that comes by. The center sells souvenirs, predator guards for nests, books, DVDs and handpainted necklaces made by one of the LCBS members.

Cashman said the center have logged about 250 visitors to the center since March.

Carol McDaniel said the center isn't solely dedicated to bluebirds but hopes to create an interest in all nature.

Except sparrows - don't tell her you love sparrows.

"They are non-native birds," she said. And they tend to kill and kick bluebirds out of their own nests.

"A sparrow will come in and peck the (bluebird) mom until she kills her and then just nest there," she said.