TWIN FALLS — The Pyleses’ light blue Ford Edge with “Blubd” vanity plates bounced along the gravel road leading into the South Hills near Rogerson.
Eugene Pyles slowed the vehicle when it approached a rocky dirt road just past a red and yellow “no campfires” sign on a fence. His wife, Joan, sat in the passenger seat and their collie, Knit, in the back seat. Knit always likes the ride to see the bluebirds.
The bluebirds were gone on Friday, but the couple and their dog still love to drive the road through bluebird haven.
“There’s a box there,” Eugene said. He pointed to a small wooden box on top of a stake on the right side of the road.
“That’s not ours,” Joan replied.
“Well, it was ours,” he said.
“It was ours,” she repeated softly, looking out the window.
For the past 12 years, the Pyleses have often left their Twin Falls home to drive nearly two hours south.
All those years they have been keepers of the bluebirds that nest in the sagebrush landscape. In those years, they have built and maintained more than 50 wooden nesting boxes. But now at 84, they realize are getting too old to make the trek like they once did. They don’t want to give it up, but they know their children are right.
“I don’t want to give it up at all,” Joan said. “But I also don’t want to fall and break a hip. And Knit’s as ready as we are.”
Years prior, the Pyleses would travel the dusty, washboard roads six or seven times. This year they have visited the bluebird trail four times. The last time they visited was two weeks ago. It was around then they passed the responsibility for the bluebirds to another. It isn’t the first time they’ve had others take over sections of the bluebird trail, but this recent one is for good.
The Pyleses moved to the Magic Valley 28 years ago when Eugene was named the superintendent of the Buhl School District. He led the district from 1988 to 1994.
The couple have been married since 1957 and have four children who live in other states. They met in junior high and were high school sweethearts while growing up in Vancouver, Wash. They broke up once, Eugene said, because he kissed her.
“She got mad at me,” he said.
Joan told him not to take it personally. She once broke up with a boy just because he held her hand.
Over the years, Eugene has given bluebird presentations to Buhl Elementary’s fourth-grade Idaho state history class. He’s also visited schools in Wendell and Kimberly.
“He’s a real good talker,” Joan said.
“Well, I was a teacher,” he replied.
An educator most of his life, Eugene said he enjoyed teaching children about the state’s bird, the Mountain Bluebird. Eugene has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from the University of Washington. The couple used to live in Seattle, where Eugene worked as a teacher for 12 years. In his career he’s been a vice-principal, principal and counselor.
When Eugene stopped to check on a nesting box, Joan and Knit stayed back at the vehicle. Knit, 11, didn’t move from her spot in the back seat, even though Joan left the door open.
“You gonna get out?” Joan asked the dog.
“You got to give her room to jump, honey,” Eugene told her, as he walked down a hill toward a nesting box.
In Knit’s younger years, she would chase roaming cows that got too close.
“It used to be you open the door and she jumped out like crazy,” Joan said. “Time goes by.”
The couple was introduced to the bluebird trails by their friend John Meyer. They met Meyer at a bird watching meeting. He is the one who started the bluebird trails and turned it over to the Pyleses. Meyer died last year.
Why build these little houses for the bluebirds?
Bluebirds are cavity nesters, Eugene explained, they assemble nests inside fence post holes and trees. The nesting boxes give the bluebirds more options.
This year, they raised 95 baby bluebirds. Babies are born in April and leave in mid-July to winter in Arizona and New Mexico.
Joan said you have to be careful when opening the boxes. Because as soon as you open the box, those baby bluebirds are ready to fly. They have held baby bluebirds and even their mothers in their hands.
“We are usually so excited,” she said. “When we do that, when you hold a baby bird in your hand, it’s pretty exciting.”
Eugene said bluebirds don’t have a good sense of smell and won’t reject young handled by humans. Sometimes wrens will get into the boxes.
“And sometimes,” Joan said, trailing off. “What are they called? We are getting so old.”
“Swallows,” Eugene replied, after a few seconds of silence.
“Yeah, swallows,” she said.
As the Pyleses approached a spot popular with campers, they pulled over to get out of the vehicle. A bluebird nesting box stood next to a glen of aspen trees. As a warm breeze pushed out of the north, the leaves shook and Eugene looked across the span of land before him.
Joan would often pack them picnics of bologna and cheese or egg sandwiches when they visited the bluebirds. She wore a bluebird blouse during their outing, and with her hands in her jeans pockets, she paused for a moment near the aspen trees.
“I like it better than Seattle,” Joan said. “There are so many trees there. Here you can see for miles. I loved it up there, but I love it here more.”
The past couple of years, their children have been encouraging them to get a new hobby. One that is closer to home. They got stuck once last year while driving to see the bluebirds. A friend came up with his truck and a tow rope and pulled them out. Now they try and wait until the snow is gone. It made Eugene uneasy and they finally decided maybe their children were right.
“You should do something else,” Joan said they were told. “I felt the same way.”
The couple submitted a letter to the editor and it ran in the Times-News Aug. 7. They were seeking someone to take over the bird nesting boxes. The first person to call them was Raymond Higgins, a man who works by running cattle in the South Hills. They received a total of 10 inquiries, but they decided on Higgins.
His duties will include maintenance of the houses. The bird boxes get knocked over from time to time. Sometimes it cows who like to rub them or people who like to shoot them. Last year all their boxes were shot with rifles.
“I don’t know how people can do that,” she said.
Higgins, 54, plans to maintain the bluebird nesting boxes with his wife, Wendy. The Higginses live south of Kimberly.
“I’m up there in the Hills all the time,” Higgins said. “We see the boxes. We live pretty close. We drive up there quite often.”
He said they are interested in birds and have hummingbirds in their yard. He also knows of other places in the South Hills where bluebirds roam that don’t have nesting boxes.
“We just recently became grandparents, and we see stuff disappearing all the time,” Higgins said. “If we can help, maybe someday our grandkids can see this, too.”
On Friday, the Pyleses didn’t pack a lunch, and they stopped at the campground just to stretch their legs. When the two got back into their little blue Ford, they contemplated going farther up the road. Joan wanted to see the creek, but the sun was starting to hang low in the sky. So instead they turned around and started the drive back into town.
“It’s the end of an era,” Eugene said.
For the Pyleses, there will be fewer trips like this to visit the bluebirds. If their love for their work could keep them going, they would be here every day. But they are happy knowing their passion continues on in the work of others.