Essay: Bluebird box

Essay: Bluebird box

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A dozen bluebirds wintered over in the field next to our house. Whenever I walked the path edging James Pond to the Lambert’s Cove beach, they were moving from tree to tree. One February morning I lay in bed and watched a sapphire blue back emerge from the bird box nailed to the big oak next door. Another followed and then another, until finally all 12 bluebirds had come through the small opening. I pictured them sleeping in a pile of fluffed feathers: would the nest box be warm if I touched it?

By mid-March, only two bluebirds lingered. The male, orange breast swelling, sang his liquid song from a nearby sassafras. One afternoon, a friend and I called back by playing the recording of a bluebird’s song from Bird Songs. He flew closer and sang louder. Since we had no idea what message we were communicating, we stopped after the second time. Mesmerized by such arresting beauty, I wanted this bird to feel safe and at home.

To further encourage this pair to stay, I bought an Audubon bluebird box that my husband, Whit, put up on the edge of our yard next to the old stone wall. One afternoon I saw the dusky female land on the roof, but I never saw her go in. A few days later, a tree swallow swooped down and entered the nest box, but after a brief inspection she moved on. Twice, I gently opened the door of the box and peeked inside, but except for a few bugs, it remained empty.

The bluebirds took off for somewhere else and, for a while, I forgot about the nest box. I love those long spring days when every living thing scrambles for space. Mornings are loud with the bickering of swans and geese squabbling over nesting sites. Nine kittens, all but one orange, have been born to calico sisters in the hayloft of Blackwater Farm across the road. Four signets now trail behind the swans and the goose pair still has all three goslings. Whit found a painted turtle the size of a 50-cent piece on the path. Later that same day we stood side by side on the beach and watched a pair of piping plovers perform their earnest mating dance. Any eggs, laid in a shallow scrape of sand, would have to withstand the clumsy feet of dogs and people, the wily eyes of crows, and full moon tides.

One early May afternoon, I opened the latch and looked inside the bluebird box. There was a nest! Moss and twigs shaped the cup. Inside it was lined with a pillow of our dog Pal’s soft under coat. When I had combed her out a few days earlier, I’d carelessly tossed the clump of fur by the lilac. Almost immediately a chickadee had flown away with some fur in its mouth. Was this a chickadee’s nest?

When Debby, the farmer from across the road stopped by, I told her about the nest. She immediately climbed up onto a plastic chair, felt inside the nest, and pulled up a tiny white egg the size of a jellybean. I was horrified. I’d been taught never to touch a bird’s eggs because the mother might abandon the nest. Debby assured me this was an old wives’ tale. Most birds have a limited sense of smell, and it takes a lot of disturbance for them to abandon their families.

One thing was certain. This was not a bluebird nest. Bluebirds build with fine grasses and pine needles and their eggs are pale blue. I’ve read about the work of amateurs, like me, who have been instrumental in helping this glorious songbird make a comeback. To be a real friend of the bluebird, I needed to throw this nest away and let the process begin again. But I couldn’t. Whoever had built this nest had labored. I am a mother too. I left the nest alone.

A week later I checked the nest box again. Not only had the nest material altered, even the eggs were different. Now the nest sides were reinforced with sturdy twigs, and a pile of white downy feathers had been added. Emboldened by Debby, I carefully reached inside and touched six warm much larger eggs. When I removed one to examined it, this new egg was white with dark brown speckles. House sparrows had ousted the chickadees and moved in.

House sparrows are not native birds. Imported from Europe in 1851, they were originally released in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the hopes they’d eat the caterpillars that were harming large shade trees. No one imagined they’d push aside bluebirds, swallows, and martins to become our most successful resident bird.

I’ve never paid attention to house sparrows, but now that I’m watching these homely birds more closely, I find them quite beautiful. They may not be glamorous, like bluebirds and summer people, but they’re sturdy residents, not unlike us year-rounders. Confident that these parents will not leave this nest, I’m now comfortable checking the box every few days. This morning when I peered in, the eggs had hatched. I didn’t even try to count the gawky nestlings. They were still, and I closed the box as quickly as I could.

Terry Tempest Williams, a writer and environmental activist, was asked in an interview if she had a daily practice. Her answer was that she tried to make eye contact with another species each day. This made sense, so I’ve been trying to do it too. Eye contact in Western culture signifies interest, even affection, but it can also be an assertion of dominance. When I gaze into my beloved dog’s brown eyes or the fixed eyes of a garter snake or a brown house sparrow I’m reminded that eye contact can be as much about power as it is about recognition. If I want to see more than my own reflection and remember that we humans are just one piece of our wild planet, I need to connect with care.

House sparrows are one of the world’s most widespread and well-known birds. When I read more about nest boxes on line, I get scolded for being part of the problem. By letting sparrows take over the nest box, I’m encouraging the growth of the very species I’m meant to hold at bay. At first a solution seemed simple. I’d let this brood fledge and then remove the nest. Dislocation is a common part of Vineyard life for many Islanders who only survive here year-round by renting their homes in the summer months. But what I’ve learned about house sparrows in the meantime makes it more complicated. Monogamous, they usually mate for life. In spring and summer they’ll raise up to four broods. Then in the fall and winter they’ll rest and roost in groups — like the bluebirds did next door. Will there ever be a right time to push these birds out?

Laura Wainwright is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury. Her book of essays, “Home Bird: Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” was published this month by Vineyard Stories. Hear her read at the West Tisbury Library on June 28 at 5 pm, or meet her at a book signing on Saturday, June 30, from 5 to 7 pm, at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven.

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