Being blue in Bickleton: Town attracts bluebirds from Mexico

BICKLETON -- Finding the "Bluebird Capital of the World" is not easy.

It's remote, roads lack direction signs, and once you're there you'd better have plenty of gas in your tank because there's no place to fill up.

Bickleton, some people might say, is for the birds.

And they'd be right.

This small Klickitat County town 75 miles southwest of Kennewick attracts thousands of mountain and western bluebirds each spring, some arriving as early as Valentine's Day.

The eye-catching birds have migrated to Bickleton each spring after wintering in Mexico and California for decades, if not centuries. But a Richland couple in the 1960s began the work that really brought the birds to town.

"The Brinkerhoffs were very instrumental in showing the locals the natural phenomenon," said Jennifer Wilson, owner of the Bickleton Market Street Cafe and Market.

She was talking about Jess and Elva Brinkerhoff, who are credited with building the first bluebird house and setting it up in Bickleton. After building the original -- a tin can nailed to a tree -- the couple refined the design, eventually creating a blueprint for what's become the iconic Bickleton bluebird house.

With the help of lifelong Bickleton residents Ada Ruth and Lawrence Whitmore, thousands of the tall and narrow houses, capped with an A-frame roof and pierced with a 1 5/8-inch-diameter hole, now dot the roadways around Bickleton.

One of those thoroughfares -- East Road -- leads to the home of Bickleton's biggest bluebird enthusiasts, the Whitmores.

About 13 miles outside Bickleton sits the Whoop-N-Holler Ranch, where more than 100 years of history is embodied in decaying, decade-old cars, rusting antique farm equipment, and a tilted wooden grain silo that dates to 1914.

Between the schoolhouse, the rebuilt ranch home, the car collection and an old fireproof dairy truck filled with binders of Bickleton's history, sits an old shipping container.

And inside that container, stacked from floor to ceiling, are hundreds of birdhouses waiting to be spread across Klickitat County.

"We figure this'll be good for our lifetime; we won't have to build anymore," Lawrence said of the container full of birdhouses coupled with the thousands he and his wife have built and set along roadsides over the last four decades.

The hundreds of birdhouses near Bickleton likely have increased the number of birds that flock to the area each year, said Kerry Turley of the Yakima Valley Audubon Society.

The area already offered the birds everything else they need.

Barbara Clark, a 20-year member of the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, said bluebirds are attracted to the remote area of southcentral Washington because of Bickleton's elevation, trees and smorgasbord of grubs, beetles and other insects.

With the proper climate, ample food sources and general hospitality, the bluebirds may have found the perfect home.

The Whitmores began helping the Brinkerhoffs build bluebird houses in the 1960s. Since then, the town's love affair with the tiny birds has taken flight.

There are the blue and white houses -- for humans -- in town. Also, the glass bluebirds sold at the Bickleton Market Street Cafe and Market, and, of course, the Bluebird Inn, now owned by Nelda Flores.

As a member of a group that puts a spotlight on conservation and birding, Audubon member Clark said it's thrilling to see small towns embrace birds like Bickleton has.

"It's very heartwarming, it's a wonderful thing," she said. "When you see a bluebird, it just takes your breath away."

Despite its remoteness, Bickleton's reputation is well traveled. Clark said she got a phone call several years ago from someone saying there were two busloads of Japanese tourists in Kennewick looking for the Bluebird Capital of the World.

"I said 'Bickleton,' " Clark exclaimed. "They knew about it from Japan."

Driving to Bickleton takes about 1 1/2 hours.

To get there, take Interstate 82 to Prosser, then get onto Highway 22 to Mabton.

At Mabton, take Glad Road and follow signs (if you keep a sharp eye) to Bickleton.

Remember, though, to check the gas tank before going too far.

* Drew Foster: 509-585-7207; dfoster@tricityherald.com