Essay : A thing about bluebirds
Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I have a thing about bluebirds. Every time I get a glimpse of indigo blue or smudge of rusty breast a rush of happiness runs through me. Now, turtles are back on their damp logs, osprey calls pierce the air, and the new season is picking up momentum, but for a long time, only the bluebirds sustained my belief in spring.
Some of these lovely songbirds winter over near the Hoft Farm off of Lambert's Cove Road. Most afternoons, starting in early March, I'd find them congregating around the fence of the farm's Native Plant Nursery. Standing quietly, I'd watch them mingle with one another and feed.
It was a routine I relished. They'd wait patiently on fence posts with hunched shoulders, then abruptly drop to the ground, blue back catching the late light. Snatching up an insect, they'd rise back up on their perch and begin the process again.
A dozen homemade bluebird boxes dot the nursery fence, and I watched daily for signs of use. Bluebirds naturally nest in tree cavities or old woodpecker holes, but they have adapted comfortably to using the nesting boxes that people have provided them for more than two centuries now. I saw a female bluebird emerge from a nest box with a piece of grass held delicately in her beak, but only once.
Bluebirds were common when settlers cleared forests to create fields and orchards. Severe winter weather, changes in the land, pesticide use, and the careless introduction of house sparrows and starlings drastically reduced their numbers. The only bluebird I saw growing up was on a postal stamp.
Rachel Carson's plea in Silent Spring did not come a moment too soon for the bluebird, whose population reached its lowest ebb in 1963. In 1962, she wrote, "Over increasingly large areas of the United States spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of birdsong." People listened, mobilized, and thankfully DDT was banned in 1972.
Some afternoons when I visited the Native Nursery, bluebird song was the only evidence that the birds were nearby. Their song is a languid warble with a mellow, liquid quality I find sensuous and moving. It's terrible to think this voice was almost lost.
Bluebird populations are steadily recovering, thanks to the work of many volunteers nationwide who have set up bluebird boxes, established bluebird trails, and regularly monitor them. When they find a nest in a bluebird box that belongs to another species, they remove it. This work has paid off. In 1987, bluebirds were removed from the federal government's list of Species of Special Concern.
Through March and early April, day after day, I returned to the John Hoft Farm hoping for a lift, and often I got it. Whenever I saw a bluebird I came home softer on my feet and brighter in spirit. Lately my efforts have been in vain. Robins perch on the fence posts now, and the songs I hear belong to other birds. Last week, instead of bluebirds, a small flock of tree swallows dipped across the field, and one pair came in and out of one of the nest boxes carrying pine needles.
Finally, it's enough just to know bluebirds are nearby whether I see them, hear them, or not. Bluebirds return to nest in the same area, and they choose the same type of nesting site they were born to. I find this fact touching, homey even. But this morning, it dawns on me what this really means. If a bluebird born in a nest box needs to have a nest box in order to successfully nest and raise young, then more nest boxes need to be put up each season.
I go to work. The bluebird box my nephew made years ago in a shop class fell down last winter; it still sits on our front bench. I get out the hammer and nail it firmly back to its spot on the old oak. This afternoon, I plan to locate some new boxes and put them up in our yard. There's room for at least two on the edge of our field and still time for a bluebird pair or two to settle in.
Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.