Meet Bill Satterwhite
by Susanna B. Klingenberg | photography by S.P. Murray
On a fateful Saturday in 1992, Bill Satterwhite was teaching a Master Gardener class at Historic Oak View County Park when one of his students found an old bluebird box in a supply shed. “Hey, Bill!” the student said. “Know how to hang a bluebird box?”
“Sure I do!” he replied. Satterwhite actually didn’t know how to hang a bluebird box. But he did like a challenge.
After a bit of reading—this was before YouTube, after all—he returned to the park to install the box. By the time he’d stepped back to make sure it was level, a pair of bluebirds were already inspecting the box. Satterwhite laughs at the memory: “That’ll get you hooked!”
Now, at 99 years old, Satterwhite is still hooked. Affectionately known as Mr. Bluebird, his knowledge, commitment and infectious enthusiasm for bluebirds has helped the bird recover from near extinction in Wake County.
Years ago, the Eastern bluebird could be spotted regularly in North Carolina. But the brightly colored species depend on old wooden fence posts and dead trees to build their nests. “When people clear land,” Satterwhite says, “they eliminate those possibilities. So bluebirds have become endangered. Today, without man-made boxes, we would have no bluebirds.”
Thanks to Satterwhite, bluebirds in Raleigh have plenty of boxes to call home. He has donated and installed more than 100 bluebird boxes across Raleigh, stretching from the Lonnie Poole Golf Course to Mordecai Historic Park to Historic Oak View County Park, where Satterwhite’s passion began nearly three decades ago.
Emily Catherman Fryar, Historic Oak View County Park manager, says visitors enjoy the fruits of this labor: “The boxes Mr. Satterwhite installed have produced countless hatchlings. They are an incredible addition to Historic Oak View!” N.C. State’s University Club enjoys their resident bluebirds too: General Manager James Ivankovich calls the club’s boxes “a source of conversation and education for members old and young alike.”
In his many years teaching about bluebirds, Satterwhite’s favorite audience was young people. For decades, he made frequent appearances in Raleigh classrooms and after-school programs. He had an ongoing collaboration with the Martin Middle School Wonderous Wings Ornithology elective, donating supplies and labor to help students install bluebird boxes on the school campus. Alex Beko, a 7th grade science teacher at Martin, calls Satterwhite’s visits “…magical. He captivated the kids’ hearts and imaginations.”
It’s that enthusiasm that inspired Satterwhite to direct the North Carolina Bluebird Society and found the Wake County Bluebirders, a bluebird club with more members than any other county in the state. Satterwhite’s accolades from local groups are too many to name, but he doesn’t let it go to his head. He wants to focus people’s attention on the larger conservation movement his bluebird boxes are part of.
To ensure his conversation efforts continue for years to come, Satterwhite is training the next generation of bluebirders. He wants to instill in young people the importance of protecting creatures that depend on humans for survival. He has mentored people like Joye Stephenson, who co-coordinates the Raleigh Bluebirders with him, and has made considerable bluebirding resources public online. To build your own bluebird box, visit bluebirdersofwake.org.