Drab beauty

Living with bluebirds.

If you have never lived with bluebirds, you don’t know what you’re missing. Bluebird restoration projects – mostly involving the creation of nesting boxes – are very popular, and for good reason.

The bluebird – eastern, western and mountain species – are the hobbits of the songbird nation. When my father “got” a pair of eastern bluebirds to nest in his Wisconsin yard, he could make a quiet whistle and they would come to a flat shelf on which he placed mealworms for them to eat. Living in a suburban yard, this pair would hunt from a clothesline pole fence, finding caterpillars or other insects for their young.

Not very aggressive – nor did they like “adventures” any more than did Bilbo Baggins. They needed protection from house sparrows which would otherwise monopolize the nest boxes and/or kill the bluebirds.

On our own farm and “our road” we have placed 20 or 30 nest boxes which are mostly “rented” by tree swallows but which bluebirds are also eager to use. This year we have a bluebird nest right on the garden fence.

Especially when flying in bright sunlight, the cerulean blue male elicits awe. The male helps in nest construction and care of the young, bringing food to the egg-brooding female. Quite domestic. He also helps with feeding the young.

Hunting from on high

This year the male bluebird from the garden pair started out well but has now disappeared. An predator may have killed him. Mrs. Bluebird successfully hatched out the eggs and now I often sit on a lawn chair watching her feed her young. Although bluebirds will hover and swoop down for food, mostly they hunt from a perch. Mrs. hunts from the fence around the garden and pastures, from the top of the shed, from a spade handle. I know that they also eat grasshoppers in late summer. Once, long ago, our children and I were on the roof of the house (why? I can’t remember) and we found a jackpot of chitin: grasshopper legs and carapaces where the bluebirds and young had been running their own abattoir.

Just the other day I was telling my young friend, Mac, about how bluebirds hunt from a perch and fly down to the ground. Mrs. Bluebird was sitting on a garden feature as we were talking. Just then she flew down and captured something to eat almost from our feet. After measuring, I used the Pythagorean theorem to determine that she had seen the insect – invisible to the two of us – from about 18 metres away. Right now, Mrs. Bluebird is feeding her young every two-five minutes. After feeding, she pops out of the box with a fecal sack in her beak and drops it in the vegetable garden; I get free fertilizer as well as pest control.

Blue-grey glory

Do I feel cheated that I don’t get to see the glorious blues of Mr. Bluebird in our garden? Not really, although I wish he had survived to do his part of the work. Mrs. Bluebird is a bluish-grey – rather dull by comparison, except when she flies and flashes more of blue when her wings don’t cover the brightest feathers.

Is she beautiful? To quote Gandalf: “All that is gold does not glitter.”

I tried to describe my reactions to the male and female bluebird in a poem.

textbook blue, males
always bright
drab blue-grey female
explodes into glory

If you can, entice bluebirds of any species to bless your yard with their presence. Even if you don’t “get” the beautiful colours of the males, you can be awed by the drab beauty of a female whose presence may make your yard a Hobbiton of sorts.


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