That bird feathered blue… is waiting for you… right in your own backyard.
It’s been about ten years since I stenciled that line from an old song onto our sunroom wall and probably 20 years and three moves since the extraordinary day I witnessed an amazing scene in our backyard. I have told the story many times, but each spring I watch our bluebird house, hoping for occupancy, and feel an urge to share it once again.
I never saw a bluebird during the years we lived in the Midwest. When we moved back to the South for awhile–home for both of us–the first bluebird I spied was so lovely I wept. I’d actually forgotten they existed, even though they had been common when I was a child. Common also had been the DDT trucks the city sent through the neighborhoods, permeating everything with the fine, cool mist.
We bought the suburban house where we saw the bluebird that day and before we finished unpacking, we hung bluebird boxes outside.
Each spring the bluebirds came to gather around our boxes and examine our accommodations. We waited anxiously, exalting when we saw a couple taking in the makings of a nest.
Although we tried not to be nosy landlords, I could not resist peeking. One morning I saw a disturbing sight. There, next to three delicate blue eggs was a brown-speckled one, much larger than the others.
Should it be removed? If I sensed it didn’t belong there, would Mother Bluebird know it, too?
The “expert” at the Seed & Feed told me to leave it there. His advice didn’t convince me, so I left a message on a friend’s answering machine and she called back, saying, “It’s a cowbird egg. Get it out of there!”
Too late. A downy grey head already peeked out of the box, calling rudely. The baby cowbird had already hatched. The adult bluebirds flew constantly, bringing food, but nothing quelled this baby’s appetite.
One morning soon after, the “toddler bird” sat quietly atop the box until the adoptive parents appeared, then it launched into a frenzied, fluttering dance. Its cries were easily translatable: FEED ME! More! NOW!
Cowbirds, I learned, never build nests of their own, but slip sneakily into the nest of other birds, leaving an intruder egg for the host birds to raise. They foist their offspring on smaller birds,so if there is not enough food for all, the smaller birds will be the ones to perish.
I called Animal Rehabilitation for advice. Yes, the cowbird must be removed. If I could get it, ARC would raise it. I set upon my capture mission, but Dumbo cowbird managed to fly to the garage roof, foiling my plan. There it continued its dance for food, walking back and forth on the peak of the roof like some silly wind-up toy chicken. The bluebird parents flew constantly, valiantly, in an attempt to sate Dumbo’s appetite.
I watched the bluebird house. An hour passed. Four hours without a parental visit would mean the nest had been abandoned. I couldn’t bear the wait, so I drove to the pet store for mealworms, although I had no idea of what to do with them.
Savior without a clue.
As I pulled into our driveway, the now familiar flash of blue glided past. The male adult bluebird perched delicately on the wispy, topmost branch of our tallest cedar tree. He flew straight up, stopped in midair, and fluttered his wings as he hovered in place, then sank back onto the branch. He repeated the ritual several times: rising, halting to flap in midair above the trees, then sinking back onto the branch. I sat in the car, watching in rapt wonder as bluebirds appeared almost instaneously. Not simply a pair or two, but dozens!
Two adult bluebirds patiently worked with the baby cowbird, giving it flying lessons so obvious that I believed I could follow them. A parade of other bluebirds delivered a constant food chain to the bluebird house nursery for the next hour, a banquet for the bluebird babies.
I still get chills when I think of that day. I sat in the lawn chair for hours, watching the bluebirds work through an overwhelming situation.
The next morning just before dawn, Dearly Beloved and I peeked inside the bluebird house. Three fat, downy babies slept peacefully. In the nearby trees the adult bluebirds waited, ready to begin their work. Dumbo, the fat baby cowbird had already begun his chicken dance on the peak of the garage, calling for roof service.
I remember standing at the kitchen sink window and watching the birds as the TV news droned across the room. Political cacophony. . . wars. . . disasters… the we’s against the they’s.
We haven’t changed much–different wars, different disasters, but the same old discord. We still do our own ridiculous chicken dances… My way… MY way!
How did the bluebirds get so wise?
They worked their own quiet miracle. . . together.