MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Jim Bearden loves everything about the eastern bluebird — its color, its melodic song, its ability to keep pests out of a garden.

What he doesn't like is that the bluebird's population is threatened by Cobb's suburban sprawl.

At 72, the retired west Cobb man has made it his mission to install habitats for his vibrant feathered friends all across the county.

He has set up 27 habitats and 10 feeding stations along the 2.3-mile "Bluebird Trail" at Green Meadows Preserve, 112 acres of county-owned parkland at Dallas Highway and Old Hamilton Road. He monitors a total of 42 habitats, or nest boxes, set up at parks and elementary schools throughout Cobb.

Nesting season runs from the beginning of March through the end of August, said Bearden, who is offering a free two-hour "walk and talk" bluebird tour Saturday morning at 10 a.m.

Saturday's tour will be the last available to the general public until fall. The park is located at 3780 Dallas Highway.

Since beginning his volunteer efforts in the spring of 2012, Bearden, who once facilitated large meet-ins for Fortune 500 insurance company New York Life, has helped hatch more than 1,000 bluebirds.

"It goes to show one bluebird trail can introduce a lot of birds to an area," he said. "You multiply (this) by the number of people doing this across the state and we're really helping to bring the numbers back up again."

The birds typically nest in the cavities of old fence posts or cavernous hollows in dying trees.

The issue, Bearden says, is that their habitats are shrinking and the birds don't have the space they once did to build their nests and raise their young.

"We don't build fences out of wood posts anymore," Bearden said. "If we build them at all, it's out of metal. And if we have a dead tree or limb we call in a service to come and cut it down and haul it away."

The birds like open spaces and are particular about having enough room between them and the next closest nest.

This isn't the bluebird's first challenge, Bearden said. In the '60s and '70s, the bluebird's population dropped dramatically because farmers used DDT as an insecticide on their crops. The bluebird's diet is 75 percent insects and many of them fell ill and died.

Bearden, a master gardener through the 4-H Extension, sets up similar nest boxes across the county for those willing and able to house a bluebird habitat.

With county officials threatening to close down the extension as a way to save money, Bearden said he is lobbying commissioners to keep it open.

Former Commissioner Helen Goreham was on the board when Green Meadows Preserve was purchased through the county's parks bond. She is familiar with Bearden and the work he does for the bluebirds.

"Cobb County is so much richer because of the volunteers we have here," said Goreham, who represented District 1, which includes the park. "I think he brings enjoyment to birding aficionados and anyone else who likes the outdoors and likes to learn about habitats for birds."

She called the hours worked by the extension volunteers "invaluable," especially at times when money is tight.

"All the beauty you see in the parks and most of the gardens you see around Marietta are being tamed by master gardener volunteers who work through the extension," Bearden said. "We log a lot of volunteer hours, hours the county could never afford."

___

Information from: Marietta Daily Journal, http://mdjonline.com/