Along with the plip-plip-plip of sap in the maple buckets, another sound brings the walker to a halt. Bluebird! Henry David Thoreau, who heard it all before us, called it a song that “melts the ear, as the snow melts in the valleys around.”
He’s right—it’s a sound with big distances in it. Even at close range it seems far off, like a teakettle softly on the boil in somebody else’s house, a hoarse, burbling phrase I hear as So-you-have-the-key? I-have-the-key?
The snow’s not melted here, but on a sunny day in March, the eastern bluebird goes house-hunting. This most charismatic of thrushes, sporting an orange bib and “carrying the sky on his back” (Thoreau again), appears beside a nestbox or a woodpecker hole, inspecting inside, outside, above and below, or taking a perch nearby and singing a little song, as though testing the acoustics.
While for most birds, a nest is rarely more than a place to lay their eggs, the bluebird’s domesticity seems more than a little human. For one thing, the cavities it chooses are often just four to six feet off the ground—right at our eye-level. Both father and mother are devoted parents, sometimes making more than a dozen trips each hour back and forth to the nest to feed their young. And perhaps its habit of perching atop the box reminds us of a loyal sentry posted on his turret. This dedication, as well as its approachability, have long endeared the bluebird to his human admirers.
Male eastern bluebird
Photo by Ken Thomas
In fact, since the bird’s summer diet consists largely of insects gleaned from the ground, the nestbox may simply be the best vantage-point from which to hunt. The bluebird has long been valued by farmers as a tenant with a healthy compulsion for vacuuming up pests. When the summer yard is at its greenest, time and again the bluebird drops down, hovering a moment above the grasstops, as though stooping for a bit of string stuck in the carpet. Then up he goes, returning to his own rooftop with a caterpillar squirming in his beak like a drooping cigarette. A rakish Humphrey Bogart, in bright Technicolor.
The bluebird’s lifestyle does overlap with our human one, but not simply because we’re quick to anthropomorphize him. During the colonization of North America, as forest was cleared for pasture and farmland, bluebirds thrived, likely becoming one of our most common songbirds. But beginning in the late 1800s, as their preferred habitat began to revert to forest, and with the introduction of invasive species like the house sparrow and the European starling, populations plummeted. Agricultural pesticides took a toll on bluebirds, and suburban sprawl resulted in the removal of standing deadwood they relied on for nesting sites. Even into the 1980s, the species was listed as “rare” or “threatened” in a number of Eastern states.
A pair of bluebirds in full nest-building mode
But if people played a major role in bluebird decline, they have also proven themselves a staunch ally. In recent decades, as the environmental movement gained followers and the bluebird’s plight became more widely known, bird-lovers of all sorts have erected hundreds of thousands of specially designed nest-boxes. In fields, farmyards, backyards, and on fencelines along country roads, this ongoing effort has paid enormous dividends, offering the bluebird new real estate on which to stake a claim. Though starlings, sparrows, and house wrens still compete for these nesting sites, the eastern bluebird has made a major comeback in recent years.
On the family farm in western Michigan, the bluebirds nest along the third-base line of our makeshift baseball field. The male flies up into the nearby poplars and watches our game warily, singing a soft play-by-play to his mate, who sits on eggs inside the box. His jumbled notes are like a referee laughing very quietly into his whistle, but we don’t take much notice. Baseball needs only a gruff umpire calling balls and strikes, fair or foul. The pitcher winds, kicks, delivers…and the batter connects, sending a pop fly behind home plate. As the ball rises, the bluebird takes off straight up into the air after it for a moment, as though it were some large white butterfly to be chased down and nabbed. Before he thinks better of it, the two hang there a moment in midair, human and inhuman, paired and separate, before settling back to earth again, both uncaught.
Interested in building a bluebird house for your back pasture? (Even a medium-sized backyard will do.) It’s simple, and the materials are cheap! Check out the construction plans at the North American Bluebird Society website. And interested in attracting bluebirds? Try putting out some dried mealworms (available at most stores where birdseed is sold) their delicacy of choice! And a clean, shallow bird-bath is also appealing to these notorious bathers.