When I arrived home in Maine seven weeks ago my friend Kathy who lives down the road already had eastern bluebirds coming to her feeders. Because I think of bluebirds as being insectivores (although they love berries too) their early arrival seemed unusual to me until I did a little research and discovered that bluebirds as a species are expanding their winter range as Climate Change continues to push them northward. I didn’t know that some have been living year round in Massachusetts for some time.
Most Eastern bluebirds who breed in northern climates do migrate, gathering in large numbers during November to fly south. In March, April, and May they move north to summer breeding grounds. In Florida where there is a stable population the bluebird may breed as early as January. Putting up nest boxes for bluebirds is helpful because these birds have lost so much habitat. Around my house here in Maine all snags have been left intact, as have all the trees so I have many natural cavities for all kinds of birds to nest in. But except for my field I have little open space. This year a friend of mine is making me a nest box, so perhaps I can attract a bluebird couple of my own.
Wherever these birds breed, the male initiates courtship often providing his mate with a tasty morsel or two while delicately fluttering his wings. The female lays four to six eggs that are a stunning shade of blue. Here at least, two broods are raised during one season. While the female sits on the second set of eggs, the male takes charge of the nestlings.
Caterpillars, spiders, and insects of various kinds provide the young with protein. Newly ploughed fields are an excellent source of insects and grubs. As previously mentioned bluebirds are also fond of berries and other ripe fruits. During the late summer and fall, bluebirds pounce on grasshoppers from the tops of mullein, an herb that is so common in natural fields. In the west hundreds of bluebirds might gather to feed on juniper berries. My guess is that they could do the same around here.
When I glimpsed bluebirds perched on my telephone wire a couple of weeks ago I got a chance to watch them through binoculars. I noted that the subtle coloring of the females varied as did the vibrant blue of the males.
I was also struck by how similar these eastern bluebirds were to those western bluebirds that I had glimpsed during the spring and early fall months in Abiquiu. I knew that I would probably not be able to distinguish one from the other unless I could identify the blue patch on the western male’s belly; the eastern bluebird has more white. Another identifying marker is that male western bluebirds have blue throats, while the male eastern bluebirds have orange or rust colored throats. I also didn’t know that the two species were so closely related that they interbred, or that both eastern and western bluebirds nested in the Rio Grande Bosque.
Around the casita I watched what I thought were western bluebirds (!) perch on the fence wire overlooking the field. When spotting tasty prey they sometimes took insects from the air; occasionally, they flew to the ground. By late fall these birds were gone.
Both eastern and western bluebirds prefer semi –open terrain; orchards, farms and ranches are excellent places because they are often surrounded by pine, oak, ponds for cattle, and streamside groves. Both eastern and western bluebirds tend to avoid hot dry regions during the summer but in the west they will nest in pinyon – juniper forests.
|Overall, the eastern bluebird is also in decline for the usual reasons. In recent decades, the western bluebird numbers have fallen dramatically over much of their range. The use of pesticides and controlled and uncontrolled burns destroy masses of habitat and are creating havoc for all southwestern bird species. Because western bluebirds have also become relatively common Bosque breeders over the past two or three years, it is more important than ever to protect our precious Rio Grande Bosque.
Bluebirds are important in the traditions of many Native American cultures. In particular, Bluebird is a symbol of spring. In Iroquois mythology, it is the singing of the bluebird that drives away winter. Bluebirds are also associated with the wind by the Cherokees, and were believed to predict or even control the weather. The Navajo and Pueblo tribes associate bluebirds with the sun; in some Pueblo tribes, Bluebird is identified as the son of the Sun. The Hopi see the bluebird as a directional guardian, associated with the west.
I close this narrative with a personal memory…
When I was a little girl I would sit on my grandfather’s desk, (the same one that I write on now) and look out the east window to watch the bluebirds enter and leave their nest boxes. My grandfather had ten homemade boxes positioned across the large and open field. Each year the bluebirds returned and my grandmother, my little brother, and I loved to see the fledglings leave the nests for the first time. I was always afraid the little ones would fall and my grandmother would have to remind me that I had never seen one get hurt –not ever.
May the bluebirds live on!