[Field Notes]

Bluebirds of Happiness


Watershed country has a rich diversity of songbirds that include the bluebird – an international symbol of happiness, hope and harmony.

There are three species of bluebirds in North America: the eastern, western and the mountain. The eastern bluebird ranges from Nicaragua in the south and spans northward to Saskatchewan and east to Nova Scotia. This cherished little fellow makes its home in our countryside.

My lifelong love for bluebirds began during my childhood in the Rainy River District. Sunday springtime jaunts from church to home had dad touring the prairie-like townships and the family scanning the countryside for bluebirds. He explained that bluebirds nested in hollow fenceposts. He added that bluebird populations were threatened by starlings that were taking over their nesting areas. As a child, he remembered the farmland where he grew up north of Lake Scugog full of bluebirds; he watched their decline as starlings and house sparrows migrated from cities and took up residence in the rural areas.

In the 1970s and 80s the Audubon Society deemed the eastern bluebird a declining species. In 1984 they were listed as rare in Canada.

I moved to my own country property in the Haldimand hills in 1985. The first order of business was to build and erect a bluebird house. On a mid- April morning, I heard a male singing from the roof of the birdhouse. I could hardly contain my excitement. I spun the dial on my rotary phone at record speed, informing all the important people in my life that a bluebird had come to my new home! I even called long distance to a friend in Port Hope. Every spring since, bluebirds have nested on my property.

In the four decades that followed, bluebirds have taught me many things. I’ve noticed that they thrive on an expansive lawn or a nearby horse pasture where they can forage for the vast number of tiny insects they need to feed themselves and their young. A nearby pond is also an asset.

Bluebirds prefer their houses to be within 50 feet of a decent-sized deciduous tree. At first light, when the owls have gone to bed and before hawks are flying, the parents will hover in front of the house and call their fledged young out of the house and into that deciduous tree. Once they are fed, they are called to the safety of a nearby forest or treed fencerow.

The parents encourage the little ones to get high up into the tree canopy. Both parents then feed them vigorously in order to maintain their body heat. Over the next few days, both parents feed the fledglings until they gradually gain their independence. This time frame is dependent on the availability of insects and the weather. If things are proceeding well, the parents will begin rebuilding the nest for the second brood. The male begins the ritual by bringing stalks of dead grass to the house top. The female sorts through the grass and throws it all away. She then brings her own nesting material to the house. The male’s contribution to house décor and the nursery is “showing up with something the wife throws out anyway”. Sound familiar?

Nests are generally constructed of pine needles followed by a layer of shredded cedar bark and dead grasses. The turpentine in the needles discourages lice and parasites. Three to six pale blue eggs are laid, one each day. The female sits on the eggs which hatch in 13 to 17 days depending upon how often the male feeds the female during incubation. While the female is sitting on the eggs, the male spends his entire day caring for the first brood. He feeds the fledglings and takes them all about the bushland where he monitors them closely. In early morning and evening the mama leaves the nest, heads to the bush and checks up on him and the young ones.

The second brood takes a bit longer to hatch as the male doesn’t have the opportunity to feed his mate as much as during the first nesting. As a result, the female has to leave the nest more often and the eggs don’t incubate as quickly. When the second brood fledges, they join the first family, and the parents have one big brood to feed and nurture. They often leave the area but return occasionally. A few years back, my bluebirds had two successful broods with three and four babies. In October, they returned to their house and all nine slept there for three successive nights and then disappeared. I guess they migrated south.

Bluebirds are doting little creatures. The male often fusses over the female, bringing her insects and sitting with her. She shows her appreciation by shuffling one of her wings over her back and cooing to him in a series of low-pitched chirps. Early morning is affection time and they both show their love by following each other from limb to limb and in turn cooing, shuffling and flitting their wings. It is not by accident the bluebird has come to symbolize gentleness, love and harmony. It is said that bluebirds fly alongside angels when they take a soul to heaven. I like that.

Story by:
Roger Thomas

[Summer 2021 departments]